What Now for Vaping After Public Health England Switch?

Debate in office about end of Public Health England (PHE) switch to National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP)

In 2020, the UK is in the middle of a crisis. Because of the Coronavirus, the UK and beyond face great difficulties – not just socially but also economically. As we see businesses close, people losing jobs and organisations in pieces, one we did not expect to see scrapped is Public Health England, also known as PHE. The Public Health England switch is a blow to multiple sectors and organisations, including the vaping industry.

Also, the end of PHE is significant for the vaping industry, with the government-funded agency standing up for vaping as a method to help smokers quit. Even with its critics, vapers continue to grow as a community. That’s due to more learning about how vaping can help ex-smokers to reduce their nicotine intake, with multiple studies showing it can be an effective replacement for cigarettes.

The impact of Covid-19 is widespread; ending lives, disrupting businesses and our livelihood. Health is a huge concern and the government is attempting to tackle it by any means necessary.

With these considerations in mind, the Public Health England switch is a shock to many. After all, their research as an organisation helped to promote the switch from smoking. Therefore, it’s important to understand the organisation and what they do, why this is happening now and how it will affect the vaping industry moving forward.

What is Public Health England?

Since 2013, Public Health England has acted as an independent executive agency, on behalf of the Department of Health and Social Care. In the past, the NHS lacked organisation, with structural changes needed for decades. What was the result? A new direction for public health under the guidance of David Cameron as new PM in 2010 – with a different strategy. As of 2020, using a budget of just under £300 million annually, PHE employs over 5,000 members of staff including medical researchers and scientists. Their aim includes ‘protecting and improving the nation’s health and wellbeing’, as well as ‘reducing health inequalities’.

Through in-depth research and analysis, they have tackled major issues through key goals, including:

  1. Protecting the nation from public health hazards.
  2. Researching, collecting and analysing data to improve our understanding of public health challenges.
  3. Making the public healthier and reducing differences between the health of different groups by promoting healthier lifestyles, advising government and supporting action by local government, the NHS and the public.
  4. Preparing for and responding to public health emergencies.
  5. Improving the health of the whole population by sharing their information and expertise.

In eight centres across the UK, work is carried out not just in England, but Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as internationally. The initial idea was to assist more than 70 health organisations, bringing them together under one roof. In 2020, a particular emphasis on PHE focused on the Coronavirus pandemic, producing multiple reports and research that could assist the NHS.

Not just limited to Covid-19, they also report on health concerns such as cancer, immunisation from diseases, general health focused-projects and since 2015 a progressive study of the vaping industry. This included yearly reports on key topics for Vaping in the UK. Tasked by the government’s Tobacco Control Plan until 2022, a different plan is now in place.

Understanding the Public Health England Switch

Although the initial plan was to ‘devolve health and wellbeing out of central government’, PHE has been stopped in its tracks before expected. According to major figures in Westminster such as Health and Care Secretary Matt Hancock, the major reasons for its dissolution was to help the UK tackle the Coronavirus pandemic:

“To give ourselves the best chance of beating this virus once and for all – and of spotting and being ready to respond to other health threats, now and in the future, we are creating a brand new organisation to provide a new approach to public health protection and resilience.” – Matt Hancock 

The expertise of PHE is still likely. However, the newly created organisation called the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) works on a different model. Merging with the NHS Track and Trace system, it’s more in line with the USA’s ‘Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’. The main aim of the newly created NIHP, which will officially start in Spring 2021, is to stop illnesses and pandemics like Covid-19 in their tracks, with a greater plan in place earlier.

Speaking after the NIHP announcement, Baroness Dido Harding – head of NHS Track and Trace, stated:

“The changes announced today are designed to strengthen our response, and to radically ramp up our fight against this disease, whilst also protecting PHE’s essential work beyond COVID that is so important for the nation’s health.”

Only time will tell whether this is considered the right call. Clearly, it’s angered many key organisations and medical professionals. They believe it is the wrong decision at a critical point in the UK’s future, with over 70 organisations writing to the Prime Minister to highlight the consequences of the PHE dissolution. This could damage key research into more widespread health issues such as mental health, obesity and smoking, published in BMJ by the 70 organisations combined efforts.

What Have They Done to Promote Vaping Over Smoking

One industry that could feel the impact of the decision to shut down PHE is vaping. Still relatively new with its creation in 2003, the timeline of vaping and its differences from smoking is a long journey of discovery, and yet still receives scepticism to the present day. To thrive and help smokers quit – which is its key message – vaping requires organisations like PHE to fight in their corner to have a future.

In the past PHE needed to step in, particularly following the focus on lung issues in the USA, dubbed ‘e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury’ (EVALI), allegedly leading to deaths because of vaping.

PHE quickly dispelled this issue, as well as tackling other key subjects in the debate against vaping vs smoking, with a comprehensive study. With organisations such as UKVIVA backing their claims, it’s no wonder so many leading organisations are against government plans to dissolve PHE, replacing it with NIHP.

As stated earlier, the yearly reports from PHE to update on the latest research was a perfect tonic to rebalance the debate against smoking and promote improving health. Alongside other key health organisations that continue to shine a light on the damage of smoking and the potential benefits of switching to vaping, PHE was making significant strides.

How Will PHE’s Collapse Affect the Vaping Industry

First of all, it’s a huge loss to the general public. With over 7 million smokers in the UK, that figure has significantly dipped over the past decade, thanks to the work and key messages of organisations like PHE. Moving forward, it could be much harder to raise awareness of the damage smoking does without scientific research and a greater focus on health.

Annual studies of how vaping is a better alternative regularly feature in PHE’s yearly reports, with the most recently published in March 2020 covering topics like pregnancy and mental health for Vapers. In the past, they have also looked at important up to date topics including:

If this kind of research, analysis and opinion stops surrounding vaping, many could turn back to smoking or find it harder to quit in the first place.

Can the Vaping Industry Progress Following PHE’s Good Work

To carry on the good work of PHE while also correcting their errors as seen by Westminster, the government faces a monumental task. Because many believe chief politicians like Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock are using the Public Health England switch as the Coronavirus ‘scapegoat’, the next stage of dealing with Covid-19 and moving towards NIHP is vital. Whether we see NIHP pick up where PHE left off with continued research into smoking, obesity and general health is still debated.

Because there is no concrete evidence yet regarding NIHP’s plans, the future of the vaping industry is delicately balanced. Clearly, we are seeing signs that vaping helps smokers to quit, but misinterpretation and false information is proving the challenge. It may well be up to other key health organisations to put a stop to that once and for all.

Plus, as we have seen from other studies, thanks to the work of ASH among others, highlighting the important facts behind vaping is the next step for removing stigma.