Kirsty Williams AM writes for Lib Dem Voice...
As a liberal I'm deeply sceptical of knee-jerk reactions to issues of public importance, especially when there's a severe lack of evidence to support your claim. This was a view I thought I shared with the Welsh Labour Health Minister, Mark Drakeford, after he said in the debate on my minimum nurse staffing levels bill that "in pursuing public policy, legislation should almost always be a last, rather than a first resort."
You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when the Welsh Labour Government announced plans to ban the use of electronic cigarettes in public places, along the same lines as the current smoking ban.
I called Welsh Labour's plans into question as I led a debate in the Senedd on this matter earlier this month, asking the Health Minister to produce the evidence that he had to support this ban. Despite assuring me and other Assembly Members that there was "mounting evidence" which he'd make available to me "immediately after the debate", it was two weeks until I received anything from him. This amounted to one single paper.
I'd hardly call that "mounting evidence".
In fact, the evidence seems to be mounting against the Welsh Labour Government. The consensus seems to be that there are substantial gains to be had from promoting the use of e-cigs, especially for those using them instead of traditional tobacco cigarettes. Professor John Britton, a tobacco adviser at the Royal College of Physicians, says that "if all the smokers in Britain stopped smoking cigarettes and started smoking e-cigarettes we would save 5 million deaths in people who are alive today. It's a massive public health prize."
Today, a group of over 50 researchers have called on the World Health Organisation to recognise that e-cigarettes, and the alternative they provide to smoking, should be part of the solution rather than the problem. Even Mark Drakeford himself has admitted in the past that he wasn't aware of a second-hand smoke effect of e-cigarettes.
I was, and continue to be, a strong supporter of the smoking ban. But its success was based on the evidence brought forward beforehand that showed it was necessary. The shame is that Welsh Labour claim this ban would be in the interests of public health, when the reality is it could well have an adverse effect on the people of Wales.
There is by no means a clear consensus on e-cigarettes, which is why I and the Welsh Liberal Democrats are encouraging more research to be done into the effects they have on their users and those around them. But unless evidence clearly shows that e-cigs pose a public health risk, the Welsh Liberal Democrats will continue to lead the opposition in Wales on any restrictions on their use.