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'Bear it in mind': Harris was contacted about vaping by minister and FG colleague

The Health Minister has said he has no intention of meeting with vaping companies.

Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

A CABINET MINISTER and a Fine Gael colleague were among those who contacted Health Minister Simon Harris in relation to the use of e-cigarettes in Ireland, department correspondence has revealed.

Last month Harris told the Oireachtas Health Committee that he believed it was “appalling the amount of members of the Oireachtas that are bringing around vaping companies in here and asking me to meet them”.

He hit out at large tobacco companies that are “moving into this space”, describing this as “unethical” and said he would never meet them.

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information by Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform of TheJournal.ie, reveal repeated lobbying attempts by representatives from the e-cigarette industry.

Over the last 12 months, the minister was contacted 11 separate times by associations or businesses connected to the vaping industry and Minister of State for Health Promotion Catherine Byrne was contacted by them five times.

Harris also received three emails from his Fine Gael colleague Bernard Durkan relating to e-cigarettes, in October and November last year and then again in May this year.

In all of these emails Durkan asked the minister to “bear in mind” comments made by tobacco or vaping industry representatives who had contacted the TD. 

A representative of British American Tobacco UK had written to Durkan in October last year to discuss the “potential role that e-cigarettes could play in reducing the public health impact of smoking in Ireland”. 

In November Vape Business Ireland wrote to Durkan citing results of the Healthy Ireland survey which found 41% of ex-smokers used e-cigarettes to quit. And in May this year, the general manager of e-cigarette maker Juul Labs Ireland contacted Durkan.

He thanked Durkan for a recent meeting and informed him of the launch of its vaping device in Ireland. He said the company believes that it “can provide a satisfying alternative to cigarettes in the Irish market and contribute to the stated goals of the HSE”.

Minister of State for Disability Issues Finian McGrath also contacted Harris twice in the last year in relation to correspondence he received on behalf of the e-cigarette industry.

In July this year he asked Harris to “look into the issues” raised by a representatives of the Imperial Brands tobacco company. The firm had written to McGrath suggesting vaping should be considered as a solution to help smokers in Ireland to quit. 

Harris also heard from Fine Gael colleagues Richard Bruton, Josepha Madigan and Maria Bailey, who contacted him on behalf of constituents who expressed concerns about advertising by e-cigarette businesses.

Vaping among young people

Included in the correspondence to Harris is an email from the Irish Vape Vendors Association stating it is open to consultation on the proposed new licensing scheme for the sale of tobacco products and nicotine inhaling products. 

The minister brought draft legislation to Cabinet last month to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to people under the age of 18. The proposed new laws will also ban the sale of tobacco products from self-service vending machines and at locations intended for children and events organised for children.

He has also asked the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) to carry out a review of the health implications for vaping products and e-cigarettes. 

Vape Business Ireland wrote to all members of the Oireachtas about the legislation in August this year stating that it fully supports it and already has a code of conduct on this issue.

However it stated that the Healthy Ireland Survey had found “very little e-cigarette usage in young people” and pointed to UK government research that found e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to smoking and that they help people to quit. 

The only reply from Harris’ office contained in the correspondence released to Noteworthy was to Juul Labs Ireland, informing the company that he was unable to accept a request for a meeting “owing to a full schedule of diary and government business”.

‘Numerous volatile agents’

Harris also heard last year from a consultant radiologist about the US Food and Drug Administration’s ban on the sale of flavoured vaping materials to teenagers.

There have been a number of deaths in the US linked to the use of vaping devices and 1,300 people have been affected by an illness now referred to as e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury.

Authorities have issued new clinical guidelines for this lung injury. Almost all of those who have fallen victim to the illness have been hospitalised, with the rate of new cases showing no signs of slowing despite a series of dire public health warnings.

It is not yet clear what is responsible for the condition, with theories including a resumption of vaping, that the injury had left patients more susceptible to infectious disease, that steroid treatment had made them vulnerable to infection, or that steroid treatment was halted too quickly.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said nationwide research suggested products containing THC – the psychoactive compound in cannabis – and particularly those obtained off the street or from unknown sources, were linked to most of the cases and have played a major role in the outbreak.

But authorities cannot definitively exclude nicotine products either, because 13% of all patients reported nicotine use only.

“No one knows what harm to the lungs may be caused by inhaling the numerous volatile agents being produced during vaping,” the Irish consultant told Harris.

He said Ireland should follow the USA’s lead in “limiting the inhalation of these chemicals by everyone, especially teenagers”.

Minister Harris told TheJournal.ie that his position on vaping products “remains unchanged”.

“I believe large tobacco companies are diverting their attentions to this new area. This is a new arm of the tobacco industry, it is a threat to our children’s health, and we need to call it out,” he said.

Harris added that he has “no intention of meeting with them”.

I take my advice from health care professionals, not from vested interests. I will ban the sale of e-cigarettes to children.

“Beyond the sale of e-cigarettes to children, it is fair to say the evidence is evolving at a very rapid pace. HIQA did an assessment of this in 2017,” he said. 

I have now asked the Health Research Board, HRB, to look at the potential harmful impacts of e-cigarettes.Its response is due next March.

“Step one, then, is to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to children. Step two is to look at the HRB evidence in March and see what further action we need to take.”

Vaping Nation Investigation

Do you want to know who is behind the phenomenal growth of the vaping industry in Ireland?

Through Noteworthy, we want to do an in-depth investigation into how much pressure the government are coming under from the vaping industry.

We also want to investigate the government and HSE position on vaping and if there have been any adverse health effects reported here.

Here’s how to help support this proposal>

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