Gerry Stimson is Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London. This is a sponsored post by Knowledge-Action-Change.
First, the critique. Kicking the policy can down the road is often expedient, but never wise. Not least when every day 200 people die from failure. That is where we are on UK tobacco policy. It is an important-but-never-urgent issue starved of the political attention it merits.
Our health ministers rarely cover themselves in glory: Edwina Currie succeeded in banning the smoking substitute snus – a product responsible for the astonishing collapse of smoking in Scandinavia. For her part, Anna Soubry attempted to get all e-cigarettes banned by only allowing “medicinal” ones. Five years later these remain hypothetical products. The UK’s three million vapers should thank the European Parliament for stopping her.
It’s also good to see the Westminster Parliament flexing its muscles. The Science and Technology Select Committee and the APPGs covering e-cigarettes and smoking have been investigating how current regulations manage to be both petty and ineffective. The red tape makes vaping less attractive but not safer. That’s because the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is not required to test e-liquids.
The other thing exercising MPs is the public perception of the relative safety of smoking and vaping. Public Health England despairs about how the scientific consensus that e-cigarettes are far less risky is increasingly rejected by smokers.
The cause of that distrust is the relentless stream of click-bait scare stories in papers like the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. If we want better public understanding of the science we could either ban bad journalism or end the ban on e-cigarette advertising. The latter is realistic and would stimulate debate.
So you see that I have a dim view of government and journalists. Yet, never one for giving up, I am working on the judges instead. I have intervened in a legal action before the European Court of Justice appealing for it to overturn the EU ban on snus. Tomorrow we will see the result of that. Many encourage me to restrain my optimism.
But yet. There is much that makes me extremely cheerful. That is because when elites fail, citizens ignore them. Nicotine users are increasingly making their own choices. The result is that smoking levels are plunging at a speed that life-long public health experts like myself can scarcely believe.
In Norway, the penchant for stuffing tea bags of pasteurised tobacco under their lip is knocking the stuffing out of cigarette sales – just one per cent of young women now smoke. That has collapsed from 30 per cent in 2000. Cigarette sales are also in free-fall in South Korea and Japan as smokers switch to hybrid heat-not-burn products. In Western Europe it is e-cigarettes which are the instrument of the consumer-led revolution.
This all shows that allowing competition to old-fashioned cigarettes accelerates the end of smoking. And this by free choice.
By contrast smoking is actually going up in countries which have banned vaping. There are 39 of them and they are listed in a report I commissioned this year – No Fire, No Smoke: The Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction.
Which leads me to the invitation: the Parliamentary launch of the report takes place on Tuesday 18th December. If you would like to come, get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org – it’s drinks and canapés for those who desire anti-smoking policy to be truly effective. I promise not to lecture you on cirrhosis!
The report No Fire, No Smoke: The Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction can be downloaded here: It was commissioned by Knowledge-Action-Change which is a private sector public health agency. The report was funded by the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.