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On Tuesday evening, the New Statesman hosted a panel-based event in a lecture hall adjacent to Parliament Square entitled “When might England become Smokefree?”. The subject matter was a report from Frontier Economics which calculated when the UK would achieve the government’s stated ‘smoke-free’ target of 5% smoking prevalence or less, under various scenarios.

The central thrust of this research - using trusted statistical data from the NHS and the Office for National Statistics as its base – is that if the recent dramatic downward trend in smoking prevalence seen in England since 2012 can be maintained, the 5% threshold could be reached up to 11 years earlier than if government were only to primarily focus on traditional tools like tax rises and increased regulations (see graphic). 2012, of course, is when widescale use of e-cigarettes began to take hold and the number of smokers in England and the UK markedly tumbled after a few years of modest decline.

5 smoking prevalence

The report was prepared for Philip Morris International, which was prominently declared, and it is always wise to be wary of future forecasting based on current trends as the Frontier report does. Notwithstanding this, it is still a useful exercise in the art of the possible and prompted an interesting evening of debate
Along with Dr Roger Henderson, columnist for the Sunday Times and Spectator, and Mark Littlewood, Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Sarah Jakes, chair of NNA, was represented on the panel, which followed a short presentation of the report by Nick Fitzpatrick of Frontier Economics.

Sarah expanded on the NNA’s position on alternative products and how they can be beneficial to smokers switching by pointing out that no two smokers are the same. This is a crucial aspect of the debate that legislators and public health advocates always under-estimate. Just because smokers have previously bought into a tobacco market which has been almost totally free of innovation for many decades, it does not mean that safer alternatives will be taken up in great numbers if they are restricted to homogenous products which cannot satisfy a wide range in tastes and nicotine usage patterns.

It is apt that a company called Frontier presented the research for Tuesday’s event, because the use of nicotine in England and elsewhere is indeed at a new frontier between smoking and safer substitutes.

A cigarette is just a cigarette; but a reduced risk product can be a low wattage e-cigarette, a high wattage mod, a heated tobacco device, smokeless such as snus, as well as a plethora of other products such as dissolvables, patches, gum and other innovations which have yet to come to market. Each will play a part in achieving the government’s 5% smoke-free target if just one vital fact can be properly understood. The fact is that nicotine use is never going away.

The government’s tobacco control plan appears to recognise this and its aspiration to “maximise the availability of safer alternatives to smoking” is laudable. However, its insistence on continuing to resist the legalisation of snus in the EU suggests that the government’s words speak louder than its actions.

Repeatedly referring to high levels of smokers who claim they wish to quit - without recognising that it is a preference for many only if it can be done without hardship – merely leads to further ineffective and expensive policies of coercion which have been largely rejected by millions of smokers. Human nature dictates that punishing smokers away from smoking will be far less successful than offering them something more pleasurable to move towards.

The tobacco control plan claims to wish to see more uptake of safer nicotine alternatives, and this is to be welcomed. However, if the government truly wants to see a smoke-free England sooner rather than later, it will happen when smoking tobacco becomes an inferior choice than safer nicotine devices for smokers themselves.

The best way for government to achieve this would then be to remove pointless restrictions and bans on reduced risk products, encourage innovation and stop stigmatising people who choose to continue using nicotine. Embrace the fact that recreational nicotine use is here to stay, and that much-vaunted 5% target will become increasingly more in focus and therefore far easier to hit.

Smokefree future

                                                                          Image credit Paul Barnes