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As 2018 gets underway, Philip Morris International has reinforced its recent claims to be committed to a smokefree future by placing full page advertisements in three prominent and widely read UK newspapers, backed up by a website  offering simple advice on alternatives for smokers. Grounded on the premise that the best thing a smoker can do is to stop smoking entirely, the company sets out some key goals which they would like to achieve to encourage those who can’t:

  • Offer to support Local Authority cessation services where smoking rates are highest
  • Seek government approval to insert, directly into its cigarette packs, information on quitting and on switching;
  • Expand the availability of new, alternative products in the UK.

As is to be expected, there is a certain amount of consternation from some in public health about this development from a tobacco company, but we believe that it is something that should be cautiously welcomed. As NNA trustee Sarah Jakes highlighted in her keynote speech at the e-cigarette summit in November, public health should consider what benefits harm reduction can have for smokers rather than who is providing it:

"So if you must fight the tobacco industry, fight them with truth. Make sure that their customers know that a safer alternative is available and where their customers go they will have to follow.  Hold them to account. If they say they want their business to transition to safer products make sure they continue in that direction. But be pragmatic. This won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen at all if you continually block them simply because of who they are."

On the face of it, the new campaign from Philip Morris appears as if it has potential to deliver genuine benefits, and does indeed make it clear what alternatives are available and where to find them. This is the essence of harm reduction and dovetails with the aims of the government’s commitment to ‘nudge’ policies.

We understand that there is plenty of mistrust between public health and industry, but this should not blur the end goal of ensuring that smokers who wish to switch from lit tobacco are given ample opportunity to do so and made aware of all the options they have at their disposal to get there.

We hope that government will look kindly on the suggestion to provide information to smokers in their cigarette packs, it would speak directly to them just as health warnings used to when inserted in packs in the past. Support for Stop Smoking Services is also welcome as many smokers would benefit from the advice and support they can offer because e-cigarettes can be daunting for many.

The NNA fully supports efforts to raise awareness about nicotine alternatives – it is, after all, exactly what we are set up to do – but we also realise that campaigns like the one Philip Morris has embarked upon will be controversial. We hope, however, that potential benefits from this new campaign will not be strangled by in-fighting and dogma. There will be an intense amount of scrutiny from public health, and rightly so, but it should be exercised fairly and always with the welfare of smokers in mind.

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