Has Netherlands health minister Paul Blokhuis got it right on vape flavours?

Dutch health secretary Paul Blokhuis has presented himself ever since his appointment to the post in 2017 as a committed opponent of both smoking and vaping so much so that ECigIntelligence named him last year as one of 20 influential individuals to watch on the development of the global e-cigarette sector. He has applied himself with quasi-religious zeal to the drafting and presentation of the National Prevention Agreement (Nationaal Preventieakkoord), an accord between the government, social organisations and private companies first put forward in November 2018 with the avowed aim of making Dutch people healthier.

It’s hard to take issue with that goal or with the focus Blokhuis has always placed on putting the health and wellbeing of young people first. There is some evidence and precedent to support his faith in plain packaging, which will become mandatory in the Netherlands on 1st October for tobacco products and in 2022 for e-cigarettes.

Whether he is right to affirm that efforts towards his much-vaunted “smoke-free generation” should also tackle vaping is perhaps ultimately more a tactical question than a scientific or philosophical one. But there is good reason to think he may simply have got it wrong on the subject of e-cig flavours.

He is currently working on legislation to ban all flavours from early next year with the sole, significant exception of tobacco flavour.

This, of course, is not untypical of regulatory regimes that conclude, rightly or wrongly, that certain flavours – especially sweet and exotic ones – attract young people to the e-cig habit. Tobacco flavour is exempted from the ban in the belief that it is necessary for e-cigs’ primary purpose as a crutch for smokers who want help in quitting.

But there are a couple of flaws in this well-meaning argument.

The first is that tobacco is often the least-sought flavour among adults who have turned to vaping as an alternative to smoking.

The other, maybe crucial, point was well made this week by Sander Aspers, chairman of the Dutch vapers’ association Acvoda in criticising Blokhuis’s proposal. And that is that if tobacco is the only flavour available, “you let vapers get used to the taste of tobacco, which actually reinforces the relapse (or switch by young people) to real tobacco”.

If Blokhuis is serious in his desire to prevent vaping becoming a “gateway” to smoking among young people and there seems to be no reason to doubt that he is then helping them to acquire a taste for tobacco may be the last thing he really wants to do.

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