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Science of Electronic Cigarettes

Hungary: E-Cig Regulatory Environment

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E-Cig Distributors and Vapers Face Hardships in Hungary

E-cigarette use surged in Hungary after the passing of an extensive public smoking ban in 2010. Tobacco regulation was sorely needed; at that time, smoking was legal on all forms of public transportation, in hospitals and even in airports. In 2012, cigarette-smoking bans were extended to include workplaces, pubs, restaurants, clubs and bus stops.

Hungary received praise from the World Health Organizations for its efforts to protect public health.

Fortunately, the ban has encouraged many Hungarian smokers to discover a potentially healthier alternative to their tobacco addiction in e-cigs. Nonetheless, health officials have turned their attention to snuffing out these tobacco alternatives simply because they look similar to traditional cigarettes.

The logic behind public smoking bans is easy to understand; second-hand smoke can be dangerous, especially for individuals with compromised lung capacity. While the vapor produced by e-cigs looks like tobacco cigarette smoke, research has proven that it does not carry the same dangerous smoke chemicals and, therefore, health risks for the user or bystanders.

A study published in 2013 by researchers at the Drexel University School of Public Health in the U.S. assessed the chemical contaminates in e-liquids and found that the levels of emissions produced were too insignificant to cause harm to humans and were on par with what is considered safe in occupational settings. Small studies had previously identified chemicals like formaldehyde in some e-liquids, and news outlets were quick to demonize the industry, but the Drexel study was the first to measure the extent of the danger they pose.

The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Research paid for the study. Their Scientific Director, Carl V. Phillips, issued a statement claiming e-cigs and e-liquids, “are about 99 percent less harmful than smoking, and so smokers who switch to them gain basically the same health benefits as if they quit tobacco and nicotine entirely.” Phillips added that the global health officials have been asking for hard data on e-cig safety, and he hopes the study’s findings will help direct future legislation.

Even with increasing evidence that e-cigarettes provide smokers with a healthier alternative to tobacco, European governments continue to try and criminalize these products under the guise of medicalization. Nearly every court that has addressed the question of how e-cigs should be legally classified has deemed them to be consumer goods, not pharmaceutical products; however, this hasn’t stopped government health agencies from making power grabs to bring e-cigs under their jurisdiction.

For example, a Hungarian high court recently ruled that the National Tax and Customs Authority greatly overstepped its bounds when it confiscated a Budapest shop owner’s stock of e-liquid cartridges and demanded that he pay immense fines. His crime, according to the government, was selling pharmaceutical items without a permit.

Why would the government make such a claim? This incident reflects a growing trend in the public health community to lump e-cigs in with smoking cessation products like nicotine patches and gum. Dozens of countries have successfully passed legislation to regulate e-cigs as medicinal products. Given extensive evidence that e-cigs have the potential to have a tremendous positive impact on public health, such a move sounds reasonable; however, in practice, these laws are designed to keep people from obtaining e-cigs altogether. Rather than giving smokers more, safer alternatives to traditional cigarettes, Hungarian healthcare officials are trying to deny tobacco users a way out of their addiction.

There are likely underlying motives. Tobacco taxes are a substantial percentage of government revenues, which would plummet if smokers turned away from tobacco and picked up e-cigs. Tobacco and pharmaceutical companies certainly don’t want e-cigs to compete with their products, so they wield their money and political clout as a weapon to convince government officials that e-cigs are harmful.

Fortunately, the Hungarian government was forced to return the shop owner’s supply of e-liquids and refund his fines. The court stated in its decision that e-cigs are not pharmaceutical products and therefore shouldn’t require a license from the Hungarian National Pharmaceuticals to sell. However, State Secretary of Healthcare Miklós Szócska swiftly issued a statement claiming that the ruling applies only to the individual case and does set a precedent allowing everyone to sell e-cigs freely. No similar cases have since been reported in Hungary, but the issue is likely far from resolved, especially since the Hungarian government must revise it’s tobacco regulation laws to comply with the European Union’s Tobacco Products Directive by 2016.

While Hungary should be applauded for their progress on curbing tobacco use, here’s hoping that those responsible for writing pubic health policy will start reading the latest scientific literature and see the value of e-cigs. By completely trashing e-cigs, health officials are throwing away the lives of smokers who could potentially be saved by switching to a potentially safer alternative.