How ECITA Is Changing The UK E-Cigarette Industry

Paul Bergen of interviews Katherine Devlin of ECITA.

Katherine Devlin: headshot. Bio: Before having my children, I spent several years working as a bi-lingual legal secretary for various firms in and out of London. After starting my family, I became a degree tutor, working privately with students. When my brother first told me about electronic cigarettes, I thought this was just his latest ‘fad’, and that I would carry on smoking regardless of anything, since I just couldn’t do without it. I bought a cheap and nasty ecig to try it, and realised that it might be rather fun – if I got a decent one! So I bought a better one and when it arrived, I ‘played’ with it for 6 days. After the 6 days, I tried to finish off my packet of cigarettes, which had been left on the side while I fiddled with cartridges and juice bottles. I couldn’t even finish half a cigarette! It tasted revolting, and I realised that vaping was what smoking had always aspired to be. It was simply a better experience to vape.

When the MHRA made moves to threaten my new hobby, I offered my assistance to the electronic cigarette industry. With my understanding of legal statutes and regulations, I was able to research the legal situation and begin working with members of the industry to formulate the Trade Association, ECITA. Since its incorporation, I have worked with the ECITA members to develop the Industry Standard of Excellence programme (ISE). Trading Standards described the ISE as ‘a Code any industry would be proud to have’.

We now have regular internal audits, with external enforcement from Trading Standards and other government agencies in the UK. This ensures that ECITA members’ products are produced to the required standards of safety and quality, and that they are operating in compliance with UK and EU law. I have always believed that this industry needs proper standards in place, and feel very proud to have been able to be part of ECITA’s inception and development.

Q: One of the central concerns to people both in and not in favour of e-cigarette use is that this rapidly growing market seemed to be developing without the sorts of standards common to almost any other sector. ECITA appears to be an organization devoted to ensuring consistent high standards to products and service. Would that be correct?

A: That is precisely the point, yes. We realized very early on that the single biggest challenge facing this dynamic industry was credibility. Our credibility has been under sustained attack from organisations such as the WHO and the FDA, along with many other global policy-makers since it became apparent that these products are incredibly attractive to smokers, and could pose a significant threat to other established market leaders.

Q: You mention the FDA as a global policy maker. There is little doubt that it has a global influence. As a British citizen, do you feel that the FDA, essentially an instrument of American domestic policy, should even be recognized as a stakeholder in this discussion?

A: I fear the US has gone its own way on this issue, and can only hope that it does not cause too many problems for the American public’s access to these life-saving products, as the FDA goes about its business in regulating this industry for the US. As far as the FDA’s being considered a ‘stakeholder’ is concerned, then clearly yes: for better or worse, they have been entrusted with an extensive remit, in regulating all nicotine products, from all sectors, i.e. medicinal nicotine such as NRT, tobacco products, and electronic cigarettes and other consumer products. We hope to have an opportunity to offer the FDA assistance with this, should they wish to take advantage of the ‘common sense’ approach we have been able to adopt here in the UK. Having examined the legislative detail of the FSPTCA, we believe that a programme such as ours could fit quite neatly with that legislation, which might simplify the process for the FDA.

Testing e-liquid in a lab.Q: I can see an obvious advantage to e-cigarette suppliers to join ECITA – what is the relevance of this organization to vapers?

A: From what I hear from vapers, there are many who don’t really care about standards at all, but there are a significant number who have genuine concerns about the quality and safety of the electronic cigarette products they are purchasing and using. For all vapers, we hope that the rigorous testing and auditing programme – voluntarily entered into, and paid for by ECITA members – offers a necessary level of reassurance for our customers. We shall soon be publishing further details about the Industry Standard of Excellence programme we are engaged in, and hope that this will demonstrate our absolute commitment to providing safe, quality products to vapers.

Q: As a user, all you need be concerned with is whether a product is available and affordable, whether you like it and whether it is safe enough. But a supplier or producer needs to be concerned with compliance and safety. Given that one of the main arguments
against leaving e-cigarettes on the market was the lack of consistency, was ECITA formed in order to counter what might have been the most powerful incentive to remove this product?

A: Precisely so! It would have been political suicide for our industry to have suggested that it could just carry on as it was, with no standards in place, and a widespread disregard for regulation of any kind. However, the original suggestion from the MHRA (and, indeed, the FDA) to regulate electronic cigarettes as medicinal products, and thereby effectively ban them, and remove them all from sale, would clearly have been several steps too far, and would inevitably have resulted in damage to the public health at large. We felt that there had to be a more rational and appropriate solution, so we set
about finding it.

Q: I see that in the Code of Conduct for ECITA members is the admonition to avoid claiming any health benefits to the product. While this has historically been a sticking point, can you envision a day when that can be dropped?

A: Unfortunately, the WHO has decided that ‘tobacco addiction’ and ‘nicotine addiction’ must be classified specifically as ‘diseases’. This means that any product designed to treat, mitigate or prevent these addictions is necessarily regarded as a ‘medicinal product’. (Unless it’s a proven-to-be-fatally-dangerous tobacco cigarette, of course!) The obvious consequence of this is that we cannot make any medicinal claims for electronic cigarette products. However, it is possible to provide documentary evidence to support claims such as ‘healthier than smoking tobacco cigarettes’, and ‘safer than smoking
tobacco cigarettes’, neither of which could be regarded as a medicinal claim, although this has yet to be tested in Court. (We believe it is unlikely that this will happen, but we have legal arguments prepared if this were to occur.)

As for a day when we can openly, honestly and transparently tell the whole truth about these products? I can envision such a day… but believe we are likely to see flying pigs around the same time! The difficulty is that it would involve a sea change in the attitudes of the WHO, and it will take a series
of miracles to bring that about, in my opinion. Despite the fact that ‘caffeine addiction’ is listed in the same index, there has never been any suggestion that coffee should be classified as a medicinal product. Imagine the public outcry if it were! And yet this is no more ridiculous than the suggestion that electronic cigarettes should be classified as medicinal products. I mean, when did you last hear of ‘Patchfest’ being organized? These are exciting, ever-so-slightly geeky, electronic consumer products which vapers are raving about. That simply doesn’t happen with medicinal products!

Q: We know that the famously flawed FDA assay of e-cigarettes lacked substance but would it be fair to say that no matter what a godsend this product appears to be, we should still be concerned about where our e-cigarette comes from? Personally, would you ever try a new e-cigarette without researching it?

A: Whilst you are absolutely correct that the FDA (and others, including LACORS in the UK) have become somewhat notorious for inaccurate testing, what we do know is that there can be some very dangerous contaminants in eliquid. These products are absolutely superb, but only when the proper standards are in place. No-one wants diethylene glycol in their eliquid; equally, no-one wants diacetyl in the flavouring. Nor do we want any other contaminants. Consumers have the right to know that the products they purchase have been tested, and are contaminant free. Also, they should be able to expect that the stated level of nicotine in the product is accurate. For the Industry Standard of Excellence programme, this is a minimum requirement. Personally, I have tried all sorts of electronic cigarettes, often without even knowing their provenance. I don’t feel it necessary to research them prior to using them. I always remember that I used to smoke in excess of 30 tobacco cigarettes a day, and that was doing me far more harm than even a contaminated electronic cigarette product could do. But that is my personal choice, and I cannot accept that the industry should be allowed to sell products to consumers without putting the necessary safeguards in place to ensure due diligence and product safety.

Q: It seems ironic that products that even detractors generally agree are safer than the alternatives appear to undergo more scrutiny than the more harmful older forms and can actually be barred on the basis of not being safe enough (even if they are much safer). Though it is obvious to users that safer is better, regulatory logic is another beast altogether. Do you think the battle has been won or are e-cigarettes still in danger of being banned in Britain?

A: Several battles have been won, but the war rages on. For Britain, I believe we are safe for the foreseeable future, since the inherent logic and common sense of our approach is undeniable. I believe that, were it ever tested in Court, we would be victorious because there is no legal argument which could successfully counter our position. The only way in which the UK government could justify a ban on electronic cigarettes would be for them to classify tobacco cigarettes as medicinal products. Personally, I can’t see that happening, since it is so patently absurd.

E-Liquid testing.Q: Recently, in America, there have been calls to reclassify nicotine as a scheduled substance which could be a roundabout way of banning e-cigarettes or alternatively might result in handing the market over to the pharmaceutical firms. Do you think there is any danger of this happening in Britain?

A: No, mercifully in the UK we are beginning to see real evidence of a genuine commitment to sensible policy making. Naturally, we cannot rely on this being the case, but the signs are very encouraging, particularly with the recent publication of the Behavioural Insights Team’s Annual Update. We are fortunate in the UK, since the coalition government – for all its flaws – does seem to behave in a way which supports its stated commitment to reducing the regulatory burden on industry, and encouraging personal responsibility. I believe the electronic cigarette industry has passed the point of ‘critical mass’, in that too many people now know about them, and know they want them. A group of ill-informed anti’s who simply can’t bear to see anyone having any fun will struggle to gain any traction in the current UK political environment.

Q: The most active arenas of e-cigarette use, activism and policy debate are America and the UK. As a vaper, where, in the long run, do you think is the safer place to be?

A: The American electronic cigarette industry has, in my opinion, painted itself into a bit of a corner by going for classification as a tobacco product. We have fought – and continue to fight – against this in the UK and Europe, since it can only result in closed doors with policy-makers. I imagine various policy-makers who have made it their mission to destroy this vibrant industry are desperately trying to find some legal way to restrict these products and/or ban them. However, they have left it too late. The genie is out of the bottle; the horses have fled the stables, and bolting the doors won’t do any good now. Too many people now know that electronic cigarettes are what they are: the most satisfying alternative to the tobacco cigarette ever invented. Inevitably, pharmaceutical companies are likely to try – as the tobacco industry has, with Nicoventures – to create a medicinal electronic cigarette. The fundamental problem with this is that it will necessarily restrict the consumer’s ability to use the product as a like-for-like replacement for their smoking habit. Smokers have a plethora of different modus operandi for their smoking. Some like to roll their own; some use different types of tobacco leaves, sometimes switching between them on a whim; some stick with one brand while others shop around; some choose to smoke tobacco at lower levels of nicotine content, while others go for higher, and on it goes. There are also differences in the way a smoker will smoke different cigarettes in different circumstances: with one cigarette, they might have it barely leaving their mouth, and actively smoke the whole cigarette down to the last puff; another time, this same smoker might want to hold the cigarette in their hand and only puff occasionally. It comes down to personal choice, and ECITA will continue to fight for the individuals’ right to have the freedom to choose for themselves. A medicinal electronic cigarette product will have to deliver a measured dose in a particular way. It will necessarily be restricted in terms of what it can provide to the user – or ‘patient’. Vapers are not ill. They do not want ‘medical treatment’. They want the freedom to choose a safer way to be able to continue enjoying the myriad benefits of nicotine use.

Q: And that leads us to a final question. Would you say that as important as the promise of e-cigarettes are in terms of disease reduction (that is, getting cigarette smokers to switch), they are equally important in the sense of solving a quality of life issue, that is, they provide a safe enough delivery method for a drug which might have net social benefits as well as the obvious pleasures for many individuals?

A: Very much so. There are millions of people around the world who consume caffeine by drinking coffee, or other caffeinated drinks, every day. While this may not be necessary for their survival – and indeed, can be harmful in certain circumstances – people choose to drink coffee because it makes them feel more alert, or because it warms them up on a cold day, or just for the sheer pleasure of it. Would any policy-maker in Whitehall (or anywhere else) suggest that caffeine should be regulated so strictly that barely anyone can drink coffee anymore? Nicotine is only different from caffeine because of its association with Big Bad Tobacco (aka ‘Big Death’). But like caffeine, nicotine is a naturally-occurring chemical substance which most people can enjoy with few if any side-effects. (It is perhaps worthy of note that the risk profiles for both caffeine and nicotine are very similar, in that they are both associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular problems, since both substances act on the body in similar ways.) Humankind has known of the significant health risks associated with smoking for decades now, so why do so many continue to smoke? Because they enjoy it! Is enjoyment of life to be made a crime? Surely not. Nor should smoking be criminalised. I believe that people deserve to be told the truth about the options available to them: if they want to smoke, despite knowing the health risks, they should be allowed to make that choice for themselves; if they want to quit, they should be given accurate information about what to expect when trying to go ‘cold turkey’, and should be told the truth about the medical options available to them, i.e. NRT, including accurate information about the success and failure rates of these methods; and if they want to switch to an alternative nicotine product, such as electronic cigarettes, snus or other smokeless tobacco products, they should be given accurate information about these too. Numerous studies have demonstrated that happier people are healthier people. Let them eat cake? Yes! AND let them use nicotine!

17 thoughts on “How ECITA Is Changing The UK E-Cigarette Industry”

  1. I have been talking about how there needs to be an industry group for ages, and this is a step in the right direction. Are there any plans to take this concept global? So far there really hasn’t been anything like this in the US and there desperately needs to be. There is CASAA but that’s an activism group as opposed to an industry group and standards body.

  2. There used to be an electronic cigarette industry body in the US, headed by the current CEO of NJOY, but I don’t think it came to much – I think NJOY decided to head their own way and take on the FDA by themselves.

  3. I seem to remember a little bit of that, it was a little bit before I started vaping. It’s sort of typical of how the industry in the US is running I think. Pity too since I believe the CEO of NJOY is a former member of the US congress. Lots of connections there.

  4. My understanding that it was supposed to be a consortium of companies, but then NJOY ended up being the only one putting in substantial funds and effort. NJOY (or at least the management of the time – it has changed since then) actually advised us against going into an industry body for that reason.

  5. I hate to be such a pessimist but I firmly believe that at least in the US, the vaping industry will be dismantled bit-by-bit because it’s just too disorganized to affect a concentrated defense against those who want e-cigarettes to disappear.

  6. I’m not so sure, Steve. I think that if it was going to happen, it would have happened by now. It’s a lot easier to ban something when just a few people do it (like when we started selling the e-cigarette back in 2008) than when a lot of people do it (as is starting to be the case now, at least in the US!)

  7. I sure hope you are right. Obviously I have a vested interest in the success of e-cigarettes (though not as much as you as a merchant of course). My paranoid sensibilities tells me that as the devices gain critical mass and start to threaten traditional enterprises, they get more attention, not all of it positive. On the other hand my reasonable side mentions that the big companies both tobacco and pharma could just as easily offer competing products and out market e-cigarettes as well.

  8. Great Q&A! I live in Canada and everything ecig is classified as prohibited. Turns out that “prohibited” doesn’t mean a whole lot but the word alone is enough to turn away many. The word makes it sound like it lack credibility but it’s pretty much legally inert.

    Steve, the problem is that tobacco and pharma cant compete. Both have assets in the billions in either land,patents, equipment, and significant business relations that are priceless. To shift to electronic cigarettes or invest heavily in the existing market is to cannibalize all growth and much more. It is far cheaper to tie up the systems.

    But, hell. Give it 5-10 years here the whole shabangs sorted, standardized and regulated ready to go.

  9. Thanks for the comment, Vaped Crusader. My own thought that if a practise becomes widely spread it becomes very hard to make illegal. There’s a precedent in the UK. Ordinary people were banned from using CB radios, but the devices became so widely used the ban became impossible to enforce:

    “The normal authority for regulating the use of radio, the Home Office Radio Regulatory Department, was overwhelmed and could not possibly trace and prosecute every illegal user.”

    Eventually the government capitulated and made them legal. (After which most users promptly lost interest!)

  10. Good point. Surly Government Agencies must know they can’t stop the market (seeing how the same scenario plays out over and over). That only leave the option that they are trying to slow the market.. why? and for what ends? who knows..

  11. “why? and for what ends?”

    It’s got to be financial – the e-cigarette just threatens too many entrenched interests.

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