Fifteen prominent scientists who have investigated the health consequences of electronic cigarettes have accused European Union regulators of misinterpreting their results. The scientists say the EU aim is to draft an unjustifiably burdensome new law to regulate e cigarettes.

Their argument is made in a letter to the EU’s health commissioner Tonio Borg. The scientists state that if the newly amended Tobacco Products Directive becomes law as it stands which could happen as soon as April it will severely limit the scope for smokers of real cigarettes to give up or cut down by switching to e cigarettes, which contain nicotine but not the tobacco that contains tar and thousands of other substances harmful to health.

“If wisely regulated, e cigarettes have the potential to make cigarettes obsolete and save millions of lives worldwide,” the signatories say in the letter, which was also sent to members of the European Parliament, European Commission and the Council of Ministers the three bodies that will decide the fate of the directive. “Excessive regulation, on the contrary, will perpetuate the existing levels of smoking related disease, death and health care costs,” it continues, pointing out that smoking currently kills 700,000 Europeans each year.

The British Medical Association told New Scientist that longer trials are needed to learn more about the long term effects of e cigarettes. “Better regulation of e cigarettes is essential,” a spokesperson says. “Studies have shown that they are unreliable in the levels of nicotine they provide and there’s a lack of evidence regarding their safety.”

Ethical imperative

The signatories of the letter say regulation must be built on robust science. The cited errors relate to the strength of nicotine solutions allowed, the doses needed to match the nicotine “hit” from real cigarettes, an overstatement of the known dangers from nicotine and unwarranted assumptions that e cigarettes will become “gateway products”, tempting non smokers and young people to try real cigarettes.

As it stands, say the scientists, the draft would unnecessarily restrict nicotine content in the liquids that are vapourised in e cigarettes to deliver the drug to users when they suck on the devices.

Currently, the draft would restrict content to 20 milligrams of nicotine per millilitre of fluid, on the grounds that this matches the dose from a real cigarette over the same period of smoking. An estimated 20 to 30 per cent of e cigarette users prefer higher doses than this, and so could potentially return to smoking real cigarettes unless stronger e cigarettes are allowed, warn the researchers.

Outdated, overestimated

One of the signatories, Konstantinos Farsalinos of the University Hospital in Gasthuisberg in Leuven, Belgium, says his own research on e cigarettes was used to reach this figure, but that it has been misinterpreted. His work shows that 20 milligrams is less than half of what is required to match the output from a real cigarette, equivalent to roughly 50 milligrams per millilitre.

Much of the misinterpretation of results comes from outdated information and overestimation of the toxicity of nicotine, say the researchers.

The EU’s current assumption that 60 milligrams of nicotine is lethal is incorrect, they say, and dates from self experiments reported in a pharmacology textbook published in 1856. “This is not the case, and people have ingested doses 60 times higher, which only led to nausea and vomiting,” says the scientists’ letter. “Poisoning from tobacco, nicotine replacement medications or e cigarette liquid is extremely rare, and there is no risk of overdosing through inhalation,” they say.

Deep breath

Another gripe with the current draft of the Tobacco Products Directive is its insistence that electronic cigarettes deliver nicotine doses “consistently”. This is nonsensical, they say, because “vapers” the users of e cigarettes dictate for themselves how much nicotine they breathe in.

Research shows, for example, that individual users of the same electronic cigarette differ in nicotine intake by as much as 20 fold because they inhale different amounts at different rates.

The scientists also take issue with wording in the directive implying that there is strong evidence that e cigarettes lead to nicotine addiction and in turn the smoking of real cigarettes. “Existing data do not suggest that electronic cigarettes are having any such effects,” they go on to say that the evidence suggests the use of e cigarettes helps smokers of all ages reduce or give up smoking.

Dog’s breakfast

Supporters of e cigarettes argue that they could help smokers avoid disease and premature death. Proponents are lobbying either for further amendments to the draft directive to ease the restrictions, or for the e cigarettes component of the directive to be removed altogether and re drafted as an independent regulation.

“Otherwise, we’ll end up with a dog’s breakfast that will set the direction of e cigarette legislation for decades,” says Clive Bates, former director of UK public health charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), and a prominent campaigner for harm reduction through e cigarettes.

But time to amend the directive is limited because it will be read in the European Parliament in March. If passed, it could be rubber stamped into law by the Council of Ministers a month later.

The EU’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety committee met 22 January in Brussels, Belgium, to consider the latest draft.

“My main issue with the directive is that it is unbalanced in its treatment of e cigarettes compared to tobacco products,” says signatory Chris Bullen of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Last year Bullen headed a trial demonstrating that e cigarettes are at least as effective as nicotine patches in helping people quit smoking or cut down. “Proportionate regulation is what’s needed, sufficient to give consumers confidence in the quality, reliability and safety of e cigarettes,” he says.

Hm revenue & customs: tax and duty on goods brought to the uk from the european union

Viceroy cigarettes where to buy

If you are travelling to the UK from the European Union (EU), you can bring in an unlimited amount of most goods for your own use without paying tax or duty, but certain rules apply.

On this page

  • Arrivals from EU Countries
  • Customs checks when coming from the EU
  • Declaring goods to customs
  • Banned and restricted goods
  • Getting more help and advice
  • More useful links

Arrivals from EU countries

When arriving into the UK from an EU country you can bring in an unlimited amount of most goods.

For excise goods such as alcohol and tobacco, there are no restrictions. However you must meet the conditions below

  • You transport the goods yourself.
  • The goods are for your own use or as a gift. If the person you give the goods to pays you in any way including reimbursing you for any expenses or payment in kind then it’s not a gift and the goods may be seized.
  • The goods are duty and tax paid in the EU country where they were acquired.

If you don’t meet these conditions, the goods and any vehicle that transported them, may be seized.

You can read more about Excise Duty in the guide ‘Customs Duty, Excise Duty and Import VAT introduction’. You’ll find a link to this in the More useful links section below.

Motor fuel

As well as the fuel in your vehicle’s standard tank, you can bring in reserve fuel for that vehicle without paying any Excise Duty on it. The fuel must be in an appropriate container.

Read about which countries are in the EU in Travelling to the UK (Opens new window)


Customs checks when coming from the EU

If a customs official from the UK Border Agency (UKBA) thinks you may be bringing in excise goods such as alcohol and tobacco from the EU for commercial use perhaps to sell to other people or simply for reimbursement they may ask you questions and make checks. You may be asked about

  • the type and quantity of goods you’ve bought
  • why you bought them
  • how you paid for them
  • how often you travel
  • how much you normally smoke or drink

Although there are no limits on the amount of alcohol and tobacco you can bring in from EU countries, customs officials are more likely to ask you questions if you have more than the following

Goods brought to the UK from the European Union

Until 30 September 2011

From 1 October 2011











3 kilograms

1 kilogram


110 litres

110 litres


90 litres

90 litres


10 litres

10 litres

Fortified wine (for example port or sherry)

20 litres

20 litres

If the UKBA is satisfied that the goods are for a commercial purpose it may seize them and any vehicle used to transport them, and may not return them to you. You can find out more in the guide ‘What to do if your goods are seized by customs’ under ‘More useful links’.

Find out about tax and duty on commercial imports (Opens new window)


Declaring goods to customs

You must declare to customs any goods from EU countries if you think they may be banned or restricted goods.

To do this you should use the red channel or the red point phone.

Note that if you are bringing back goods for commercial purposes, the rules are different.

Going through customs


Banned and restricted goods

There are some goods, such as offensive weapons and illegal drugs that you can’t bring into the UK no matter where you’re travelling from. Other goods, like firearms, are restricted.

Some food and plant products may be restricted if they

  • are not free from pests and diseases
  • are not for your own use
  • were not grown in the EU

Read more about banned or restricted goods


Getting more help and advice

If you need more information about bringing in goods to the UK from the EU, you can contact the VAT, Customs and Excise Helpline by following the link below.

Contact details for the VAT, Customs and Excise Helpline


More useful links

Travelling to the UK (Opens new window)

Customs Duty, Excise Duty and Import VAT introduction

Tax and duty on goods brought to the UK from outside the EU

What to do if you have something seized by Customs