E-cigarettes on the NHS? Not so fast

19 August 2015
What was claimed

Smokers will be able to get e-cigarettes on NHS prescription.

Our verdict

Public Health England has put this idea on the agenda in a new report, but doesn't have the power to decide. The idea might be taken up, but it'll be a while.

"Smokers will get e-cigs on prescription"

Daily Mirror, 19 August 2015

Vapers shouldn't hold their breath. Today's review of the evidence on e-cigarettes puts NHS prescription on the agenda, but it's a long way off yet, if it happens at all.

In a statement accompanying the review, which is positive about the health benefits of e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking, Public Health England says that it "looks forward to the arrival on the market of a choice of medicinally regulated products that can be made available to smokers by the NHS on prescription".

As that fairly passive statement implies, Public Health England doesn't decide what's available on the NHS. To be prescribed as a medical treatment, e-cigarettes would need to be licensed by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

No e-cigarette products have such a licence at the moment; Public Health England cites the costs to firms of the MHRA licensing process as one of the main barriers.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) can also have a say in what the NHS provides. NHS patients have a right to medicines recommended by NICE, if prescribed by a doctor. But NICE would only play a role where there's uncertainty over whether a treatment should be funded by the NHS.

If the NHS were happy to fund prescriptions of medically licensed e-cigarettes, there would be nothing to stop doctors prescribing them where appropriate. But that's academic when there are no products out there with a licence.

Public Health England recommends another review to look at whether the MHRA licensing process is too stringent, as well as to see whether there would be demand for e-cigarettes on prescription in the first place. It's possible that the attraction of e-cigarettes as a tool to help quit smoking is that they aren't viewed as medicine.

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