The Prime Minister of the UK, Rishi Sunak, recently announced an ambitious proposal: a generational smoking ban coupled with restrictions on vaping. On the surface, it seems to be a bold stride towards a smoke-free future. However, dig a bit deeper, and the flaws in this approach become glaringly evident.
First, let’s examine the generational smoking ban. The idea is to incrementally raise the smoking age so a 14-year-old today will never legally be able to purchase cigarettes. In other words, this 14-year-old will never be treated as an adult by the government. While the intention is commendable, its practicality is questionable. Imagine, a few years down the line, having to ID adults in their 40s to determine if they’re “of age” to smoke. Not only is this logistically cumbersome, but it also opens the door to another grave concern: the black market.
Illicit trades thrive in environments where bans are imposed. By making it illegal for an entire generation to purchase cigarettes, we inadvertently push them towards shadowy dealers, where there’s no regulation, quality control, or age checks. These black market peddlers won’t be carding young adults or ensuring their products are safe. Moreover, these dealers may offer a menu of illicit substances, heightening the risk of consumers venturing into more harmful drug use.
Including Heat-Not-Burn products, which are demonstrably less harmful than traditional cigarettes, in the generational smoking ban is counterproductive. Lumping in reduced-risk products with traditional cigarettes can hinder the goal it seeks to achieve. Many smokers turn to Heat-Not-Burn products as a stepping stone towards quitting, due to their lower risk profile. By banning them, we risk depriving current and future smokers of an effective harm reduction alternative, potentially driving them to either continue with traditional cigarettes or turn to illicit market alternatives.
While a smoke-free UK is a vision we all share, it’s essential to approach it with strategies that are effective, not just theatrical. The UK’s current harm reduction strategy, which embraces vaping as a smoking cessation tool, has been immensely successful. Recent data from the Office for National Statistics shows smoking rates in the UK are at a historic low among adults and young people alike. These results, notably better than those of the European Union, are a testament to the merits of harm reduction.
Why then, when the UK has so effectively championed harm reduction, is the Prime Minister considering a turnabout on vaping? It’s contradictory to distribute one million vapes to smokers under the “Swap-to-Stop” program only to turn around and propose restrictions on these very products. The proposed limitations on flavoured vaping products, disposable vapes and Heat-Not-Burn products are concerning. Flavours play a crucial role in making vaping a palatable alternative for smokers, and disposables offer a low-barrier entry for those looking to quit smoking. Friedman & Xu (2020), researchers from the Yale School of Public Health, associated the use of vaping flavours with a 230% increase in the odds of adult smoking cessation. Restricting them jeopardises the progress we’ve made.
It’s worth noting that there are significant voices of caution within Prime Minister Sunak’s own party. MP Steve Brine, a prominent figure within the Conservative Party and Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, raised concerns about hastily made decisions without careful thought. He remarked, “We need to think very carefully and follow the evidence about the role vaping, including non-disposable vapes, play in giving adults a pathway out of smoking tobacco products. I would urge Ministers to mitigate for any unintended consequences before any changes are to be introduced.” Brine’s words resonate with the broader sentiment that policy changes should be backed by solid evidence and thorough understanding rather than reactionary measures.
What the UK ought to be doing is doubling down on its harm reduction strategy. In addition to endorsing vaping even more vigorously, there’s an opportunity to integrate nicotine pouches and Heat-Not-Burn products into the broader harm reduction framework and consider the legalisation of snus. These measures could propel the UK to rival Sweden for the lowest smoking rates globally.
Rather than resorting to impractical bans or imposing counterproductive restrictions, let the UK continue to lead by evidence, ensuring our smoke-free vision is rooted in pragmatism, not just good intentions.