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Regulations-heavy Germany has taken a surprisingly lax stance on e-cigarettes and vaping laws. It's the right approach, writes a policy analyst.

They are slowly taking over the streets, parks and train platforms of Berlin and other cities, exhaling their sweet candle-like aerosol and watching it waft away. Vapers! People who have substituted cigarettes for so-called e-cigarettes, and smoke for vapor.

If you see more vapers in Germany than in some other countries, it may be because Germany is one of the countries taking the most permissive regulatory approach to e-cigarettes. Other liberal countries include Sweden, Britain, and the Czech Republic, according to the Nanny State Index on nicotine supplements by the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. Germany has no regulation on public vaping at all. It has no special taxes on the products, and no rules on cross-border sales. And it only has mild restrictions on advertising and such.

By contrast, the most restrictive countries with respect to nicotine alternatives are Finland and Hungary, which heavily tax and regulate public use. The European Union itself has also started to look at tightening rules on vaping. The EU already cracked down on e-cigs in 2012 (after they had entered the European market in 2007). It has limited container capacity, the size of refill packs, and potency. It also made “childproof packs” compulsory, and regularly investigates producers.

Even in liberal Germany, not everyone agrees with the permissive attitude towards vaping. On a regular basis, fear-mongering headlines proclaim a “vaping epidemic”. Others claim that vaping is a “gateway drug to cigarettes”. Even the rare occurrence of an e-cigarette exploding during its usage is fodder for those who want tougher regulation. It’s the familiar straw man argument: “If we don’t do X, people will die!”

Scientists on balance take a much more positive view of vaping. Yes, vapes still contain nicotine, which is addictive. But so is caffeine. Nicotine itself, however, does not cause cancer. So by switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes, vapers dramatically and quickly reduce their exposure to lots of other harmful toxins in smoke, including known carcinogens.

This is why an international panel of experts estimates that vaping e-cigarettes is around 95% less harmful than smoking cigarettes. Public Health England, a British government agency, affirms this conclusion. It wants to permit “innovative technologies that minimize the risk of harm” and to “maximize the availability of safer alternatives to smoking.”

All governments should embrace products that reduce harm. Vapes, which lower the rates of traditional smoking, are such products. Even critics agree that vaping is safer than cigarettes.

E-cigarettes offer a real alternative to consumers either to switch to a healthier alternative or to use as a bridge in their effort to ditch smoking entirely.

Nobody is endorsing smoking. But we should treat people’s choices respectfully, even if we disagree with their personal habits. Vaping is a technological evolution that offers solutions to problems related to smoking. Germany is right to take a liberal stance on vaping, and other countries should follow its example.

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