CentreForum Liberal Heroes of the Week #49: Frédérique Ries, Rebecca Taylor and Chris Davies

by Stephen Tall on October 11, 2013

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

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Frédérique Ries, Rebecca Taylor and Chris Davies

MEPs within the ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) group
Reason: for stopping the European Commission’s proposal that electronic cigarettes should be treated as medicines, increasing their cost and reducing their availability in many countries.

Here’s something heroic to celebrate: the main liberal group of MEPs this week stopped a damaging piece of legislation in the European Commission which would have seen e-cigarettes treated as medicine. This in turn would have increased their cost and reduced their availability in many countries – and in time led to more deaths from tobacco-related diseases.

Thanks to the amendment proposed by Frédérique Ries, Rebecca Taylor and Chris Davies on behalf of the ALDE group, e-cigarettes will now be available for sale on the same basis as tobacco.

Here’s what Chris had to say…

“E-cigs can be a game changer in the fight against smoking. Hundreds of former smokers have written to tell me that they have helped them give up cigarettes when nothing else worked. They are successful because they are not medicines but products that smokers enjoy using as an alternative to cigarettes. Every year 700,000 people in Europe die of smoking-related disease. We should not do anything that makes e-cigs harder to obtain than tobacco cigarettes.”

… and here’s Rebecca..

“Many smokers have already quit tobacco by switching to electronic cigarettes; today’s vote will help more of them to do so.”

Kudos to them and to those MEPs who voted for their amendment. There is a clear liberal principle at stake here – freedom of choice which doesn’t harm others – but on health grounds, too, the argument for e-cigarettes is strong. As Matt Ridley notes in today’s Times:

A recent New Zealand study, published by The Lancet, split 657 smokers into three categories; a third used nicotine patches, a third e-cigarettes and a third fake (placebo) e-cigarettes. E-cigarette smokers were more likely to abstain from smoking entirely, more likely to halve cigarette use if they didn’t quit entirely, and three times more likely to continue with the product afterwards.

It’s amazing how many politicians call for evidence-based policy up until the point when the evidence produced doesn’t back up their case – and that’s exactly what’s happened in the case of Labour MEP Linda McAvan, who steered the legislation, and those of her colleagues who voted for it. Matt Ridley’s strong words are entirely justified:

Be in no doubt that regulating e-cigarettes as a medicine would kill people. It would discourage their use by raising the cost of launching, selling and monitoring them and would make them harder to buy. Given that we know they help people to stop smoking, it would, therefore, kill. As so often, the precautionary principle, by weighing the costs but not the benefits of a new technology, does net harm.

Good on ALDE MEPs for their actions. But there’s a sting in the tail: the UK has already said e-cigarettes will be licensed as medicine from 2016. There’s an irony for anti-European Conservative politicians — the British Government looking to pile on regulation while the EU seeks to reduce it.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.