A public consultation to help determine the future of vaping in Ireland has come to an end. The results aren’t yet known, but tobacco harm reduction advocates are nervous about the potential outcomes.
The consultation, conducted by the Department of Health, began in November 2023 and ended on January 5. It asked the public to participate in a survey, picking from different measures to “decrease the appeal of nicotine inhaling products to young people, further denormalize smoking, and improve public health.”
Framed in this way, the exercise sought opinion on aspects of vaping like flavors, packaging and taxes. The results, the department states, “will be used to inform future legislation.”
An estimated 23.6 percent of the adult population in Ireland smoke tobacco, leading to about 5,600 annual deaths. An estimated 6.7 percent vape nicotine.
Nearby in the United Kingdom, a comparable public consultation has just led to the government proposing a ban on disposable vapes and new powers to restrict the flavors that many people rely on to quit cigarettes.
Irish politicians have been pushing similar moves, and on January 29, Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Micheál Martin expressed support for a disposables ban, describing himself as “very anti-vapes.”
“Given the huge negative publicity, it’s difficult to see how the general public cannot be misinformed.”
So Irish tobacco harm reduction advocates have reason to worry.
“I’m skeptical of a public consultation,” Dr. Garrett McGovern, medical director of the Priority Medical Clinic in Dundrum, outer Dublin, and a GP specializing in addiction medicine, told Filter. “The public is largely ignorant about vaping and any consultation is likely to yield an unhealthy dose of misinformation and moral panic.”
The climate for tobacco harm reduction is already far from ideal in Ireland, where HSE Quit, the national health body for smoking cessation, bluntly states, “We do not recommend vaping as a way to stop smoking.”
Instead, the agency encourages the use of what it calls the “safer options” of prescription drugs and nicotine replacement therapy (NRT)—the former requiring access and appointments, and the latter less effective for smoking cessation than vapes.
“Given the huge negative publicity and negative attitude from our public health bodies, it’s difficult to see how the general public cannot be misinformed,” Tom Gleeson, a trustee with the advocacy group New Nicotine Alliance Ireland, told Filter.
Smoking rates have been falling in Ireland since vapes became available; back in 2006, 29 percent of the adult population smoked. Gleeson said most people know someone who quit smoking via vapes, as he did himself, which gives him some hope for the outcome of the consultation.
Tobacco harm reduction advocates from elsewhere in Europe have chimed in on Ireland’s debate. Soon after the consultation closed, Clive Bates, a former director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH, UK), visited Dublin to feature on the radio show Newstalk Breakfast. He warned of the detrimental effects of anti-vaping measures as a reaction to youth vaping, citing evidence that “most youth use is trivial and transient.” The main population at risk, he said, is middle-aged adults who smoke.
“It was good to be able to give a different perspective on the radio,” Bates told Filter. In Ireland, as in other countries, he said, members of the public “hear a lot from doctors with strong opinions about policy but without much expertise in the way markets interact with regulations, adolescent risk behaviors, substance use and so on. Just wearing a metaphorical white coat doesn’t qualify anyone to know how to regulate nicotine or tobacco.”
“We don’t need a consultation to get in the way of the truth.”
McGovern, a doctor who does recognize the harm reduction efficacy of vaping, and a member of NNA Ireland, said the country had generally adopted a pragmatic approach to tobacco harm reduction. But he confirmed how certain prominent medics “scaremonger the public,” and seek to convince the health department “that vaping is an evil menace that is trying to hook kids to nicotine.”
Given well established evidence of the benefits of switching from combustible tobacco, McGovern said, “We don’t need a consultation to get in the way of the truth.”
Around 15,000 people are rumored to have participated in the recent consultation. “It’s always good to consult,” Bates said, but “the question is whether the decision-makers listen carefully and gain a better understanding of what they are doing.”
This wasn’t Ireland’s first public consultation on vapes. In summer 2023, the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications also held one, based on disposable vapes’ environmental impacts and floating the possibility of banning them.
NNA Ireland was able to meet with Minister of State Ossian Smyth, a member of the Green Party, beforehand. That enabled advocates to give him and his office information about disposables, the consequences of a potential ban and options to mitigate environmental problems, such as return deposit schemes.
But almost 85 percent of the reported 3,246 people who submitted to the disposables consultation said that they should be banned, with 63 percent saying they did not know the correct way to dispose of the products.
The results from the latest public consultation have yet to be made public, and NNA Ireland is now pursuing them through a Freedom of Information request.
“Requiring a Freedom of Information request might seem secretive,” Gleeson said. “As this was advertised as a public consultation, the public should at least have access to the replies, even if only aggregated.”