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February 7, 2024
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The Government must not bow to industry pressure on smoking and vaping

Last week, we reached another milestone in the ambitious plans to create a smokefree generation and tackle youth vaping when the Government published its response to the recent consultation.

The headlines have focussed on the proposed ban on disposable vapes but, while the accessibility of vapes to children and young people and their impact on the environment is clearly a serious problem, I am as – if not more – concerned with ensuring that the proposed raise in age of sale goes ahead.

Smoking kills. It kills 64,000 people in the UK every year and causes untold harm to thousands of others through ill-health and diseases including stillbirths, lung disease, heart disease, stroke, dementia and one in every four cases of cancer. As well as causing harm to individuals, smoking also injures those around them through the effects of passive smoking, not to mention the annual £17 billion cost to the economy through healthcare, lost productivity and social care costs. The measures being proposed will therefore save countless lives and reap huge rewards for the country financially – a win-win we can ill afford to ignore.

The truth is that most people who smoke wish they had never started but, because the tobacco industry specifically targets children and young people, they start young, quickly become addicted and then find it incredibly hard to quit.

In fact, over 80% of smokers started before they turned 20 and the reason this piece of legislation is so significant is because by gradually raising the age of sale, future generations of children and young people will be protected from ever becoming addicted in the first place. The evidence is overwhelming – and importantly the public support the plans too.

Vaping is a more complicated issue. The Government are absolutely right to act – disposable vapes are both far too affordable and accessible to children and are having a damaging impact on the environment. They are, however, a useful tool for people trying to quit and so it is really important that we strike a good balance between discouraging people – especially children – from starting vaping and ensuring that vapes remain available for adult smokers who want to quit.

As the CMO says, if you smoke, vape but if you don’t smoke, you shouldn’t vape, and marketing vapes to children and young people is absolutely unacceptable. Making packaging plain, banning enticing flavours and keeping vapes out of view are all very positive steps forward, as is the banning of selling alternative products like nicotine pouches to children.

We know that regulation works – we’ve seen it work already with cigarettes and so it is a logical and sensible move to apply the same restrictions to these nicotine products which the industry have invented as a way of extending their product range and customer base in response to falling numbers of people who smoke.

As they did with cigarettes, the moves will help combat the industry’s marketing message that their products are not just acceptable, but aspirational and glamorous. Reducing their attractiveness and accessibility will help combat the targeting of children and young people which is what this legislation is all about – protecting the next generation from ever becoming addicted to what we know is a lethal product.

Of course, the legislation could go further – reducing affordability is another form of regulation that we have seen work with other harmful products, for example with minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Scotland, which has reduced the number of deaths directly caused by alcohol consumption by 13.4% .

However, what is important is that we recognise the opportunity the legislation being put forward is giving us: a unique chance to change the nation’s health by preventing thousands of deaths and cases of disease.

Over the coming weeks and months though there will be significant pressure from the tobacco industry on MPs to vote against the legislation. After all, their business relies on encouraging children to buy an addictive product so that they continue to buy it and make the industry a profit – regardless of the fact that it will cause avoidable disease and death.

In face of this industry lobbying – which will undoubtedly be backed by millions of pounds – we must keep the facts at the forefront of the conversation so that when MPs are called to vote, they can do so with all the information to hand and make a balanced decision on behalf of their constituents. Noone in the public health community wants to see this legislation fail. It is as significant as Bazalgette’s water sanitation system or the introduction of mass-vaccination programmes and will pave the way to a myriad of benefits not just for individuals, but for their families, communities, and the country as a whole.

This article first appeared in the New Statesman.


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