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Ridley Blasts TPD

What counts is harm reduction, not perfect utopian safety

Noted science writer Matt Ridley has come out forcefully in favor of the harm-reduction position on the regulation of electronic cigarettes.

His blogsite "The Rational Optimist" published a blast against the new EU Tobaccco Products Directive that was reprinted in the London Times on March 4, a few days after the EU Parliament passed the directive. Yesterday the text of the article appeared on the website of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association (with a slightly toned-down title that does not include the figure of 105,000 as the probable number the TPD will consign to death).

The proposed directive, upon ratification by member states and final agreements with other EU bodies, the Commission and the Council, aims to cap nicotine concentrations of e-liquid at 20mg/ml, in the misinformed belief that higher concentrations are dangerous (despite repeated statements by Europe's foremost nicotine scientists that this is simply untrue). Ridley and others feel certain that implementation will drive many vapers back to smoking, and prevent more smokers from quitting, resulting in a rise in the death rates from smoking-related diseases, by 105,000, in Ridley's estimate, using a figure obtained by modeling at London Economics. "Surveys show that e-cigarettes are now the most popular method of quitting smoking, despite a lack of encouragement from the authorities," says Ridley, noting that when he spoke on the topic in the House of Lords (of which he is a member), he was deluged with support from vapers, people whose advocacy represents a groundswell of public enthusiasm rather than any government-led shift. Quoting Gerry Stimson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Ridley opines that public health officials want to "regain the issue from a consumer-led self-help movement."

Officialdom has "a precautionary bias against innovation," Ridley argues. "In raising the unknown (but small) risks of e-cigarettes, the public health establishment is missing the point. What counts is harm reduction, not perfect utopian safety," he claims, reminding us of Voltaire's injunction not to "let the best be the enemy of the good." He writes off the opposition of "Big Pharma" as an attempt to defend their profits from nicotine patches and gums.

Ridley is a prominent writer of books on scientific topics for an audience of educated lay persons. His book Genome is widely acclaimed, and his scientific credentials are impeccable: he read at Magdalen College, Oxford with 1st Class Honors, and obtained his doctorate in Zoology in 1983. In the scientific field of evolutionary psychology, he is noted for a stance emphasizing human cooperation. He founded the non-profit science institution the International Centre for Life, and served as its chair for years. His own blogsite is "The Rational Optimist", and he supports the British Humanist Association.