Daily Mirror front pageimage credit ©BBC

We are living in strange times when a tobacco company launches a £2m smoking cessation campaign in a national daily newspaper designed to urge smokers to quit, but that’s where we are today.

The Daily Mirror carried a four-page wraparound advertisement for Philip Morris’s new Hold My Light campaign and it attracted significant media attention, with the BBC focussing on it prominently throughout the day. NNA Chair, Sarah Jakes, took a trip to London to appear on BBC World News as well as commenting on local BBC radio regarding the subject.

It is an interesting initiative which has caused some consternation from public health groups who accuse Philip Morris of “stunning hypocrisy”. We can understand the concerns that in other countries the company is resisting tobacco control efforts and is still selling billions of cigarettes globally, but we live in the real world not an idealistic one.

The idea that the tobacco industry can only show its commitment to harm reduction by ceasing to make cigarettes entirely is extremely naïve and has no merit. Any company is obliged to pursue the best interests of its shareholders and investors, so it is understandable that sales of cigarettes will continue until such time as there is appetite in the market for a valid alternative.

It is a core belief of the NNA that the only way to get to that position is to make as many safer alternatives to smoking available to the public and to work towards encouraging innovation in devices which can tempt smokers away from the most harmful form of delivering nicotine. The market needs to change substantially before tobacco companies will be able to stop making cigarettes and we should be realists and accept that.

There have also been accusations that Philip Morris are using this as a way of putting their company into the public consciousness when tobacco advertising has been banned, but how many people – amongst them smokers – would have woken up today and been made more aware of the options they have at their disposal? In light of the recent slowdown in public perception of the lower risk of vaping, for example, this story could have a positive effect.

It is noteworthy that this campaign includes all options for quitting smoking including cold turkey and NRT and mentions no branding, nor seeks to push smokers towards any particular product. Yes, it is produced by a tobacco company but since Philip Morris is trailing in the e-cigarette market in the UK, any sales of vaping equipment would be more likely to benefit the independent market or rivals to their brand.

We are not convinced that some of the suggested supportive options for friends of smokers are that tempting – in fact they are rather contrived - but the campaign seems to leave those decisions up to the smoker and their friends and family to choose.

Overall we think it is a bright message and one where we agree with Kevin Barron MP:

“If the tobacco industry is willing to commit to a future based around e-cigarettes and other reduced harm products, we should take them up on the offer and allow Government and Local Authorities to partner with them for the financial and technical help needed to help smokers quit.”

There is no value in automatically gainsaying anything industry does. If this initiative comes up short the country will have lost nothing but, if it succeeds, there will be more former smokers who will have found a way out of the habit.

Lastly, it is very encouraging that Philip Morris have chosen the UK as the first country to try out this idea. Our government is renowned for being very progressive on harm reduction policies to drive down smoking rates and has enjoyed stunning results so far. This is a recognition that the UK is a world leader in employing risk reduction in health policy and that the future here is in non-combustible products. The reason that Philip Morris sells so very many cigarettes globally has a lot to do with regulatory environments; if alternative products are banned or subject to hostile policies, what else are they going to sell?

That isn’t the case in the UK and we hope that our government’s more enlightened attitude towards safer nicotine products continues, no matter who makes them.