GPs will be able to prescribe electronic cigarettes and other nicotine-containing products after the Government announced they will be licensed as medicines.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency will license all nicotine-containing products (NCP) – such as electronic cigarettes, gums, patches, mouth sprays – as medicines and is advising people only to use the licensed products to reduce the harms of smoking.
Electronic cigarettes are currently regulated as consumer products in the UK. Their use has grown rapidly with an estimated 1.3 million people currently using them, according to the MHRA.
Research on nicotine-containing products carried out by the MHRA showed nicotine levels could be considerably different from the levels stated on the label. It also found that the amount of nicotine per product differed from batch to batch – casting doubt on how useful these products are to people who want to cut down or to stop smoking.
This follow recent public health guidance published by the NICE that supports the use of licensed nicotine products in helping people to cut down or stop smoking.
In a statement the MHRA said: ‘The quality of nicotine-containing products can vary considerably which is why licensing them as medicines will allow people to have the confidence that they are safe, are of the right quality and work.’
The Government´s decision follows a public consultation on how to regulate such products, which demonstrated widespread support for medicines regulation from the public health community.
Chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said: ‘Smokers are harmed by the deadly tar and toxins in tobacco smoke, not the nicotine.
’While it’s best to quit completely, I realise that not every smoker can and it is much better to get nicotine from safer sources such as nicotine replacement therapy.
‘More and more people are using e-cigarettes, so it’s only right these products are properly regulated to be safe and work effectively.’
Professional bodies also welcomed the announcement.
RCGP chair Professor Clare Gerada said: ‘Rates of smoking in the poorest in our communities remain high and as a GP in a deprived area of London I see firsthand the deaths and disease this causes.
’The RCGP supports MHRA regulation of novel nicotine products such as e-cigarettes as this will ensure that they are of good quality and reliability and are effective in helping smokers who want to use them to cut down and quit.’
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, director of BMA professional activities, said: ‘It is very good news that the MHRA has decided to regulate all nicotine-containing products, including e-cigarettes.
’We can now build on this and press for good research which looks at the efficacy and health implications of e-cigarettes. It’s really important that we find out if the hand to mouth use of e-cigarettes either breaks or reinforces smoking behaviours. We need to know if e-cigarettes actually help smokers quit.’