Although other priorities have occupied politicians for many months, government minds are beginning to focus on other policy areas which have been side-lined during the pandemic. On 31st January, it was announced that there would be a refocus on advantages to be gained from the UK leaving the European Union with the release of a report entitled The benefits of Brexit - how the UK is taking advantage of leaving the EU. Page 83 of this report spoke of the government’s tobacco policy and potential post-Brexit reforms:
Helping people to quit smoking. The UK is already recognised as a world leader in tobacco control and has made good progress reducing smoking rates. However, with around six million smokers in England and stark health disparities associated with smoking, more still needs to be done to help people to quit smoking. We have now launched a rapid independent review to identify which policies and regulatory reforms will be most impactful in supporting our 2030 Smokefree ambition, including where it may be beneficial to go further than the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive allowed us to. We will set out proposals for our regulatory reforms in a new Tobacco Control Plan due to be published later this year.
Furthermore, just a couple of days later a new long-awaited levelling-up white paper was launched which includes a series of medium-term “missions”, or targets. Amongst them is a goal of reducing the gap in healthy life expectancy between the richest and poorest areas and improving wellbeing in every area of the country.
Tobacco harm reduction can play a significant role in advancing both these government agendas and the NNA has already formulated a set of proposals which will do exactly that if they are adopted.
We wrote to the Department of Health and Social Care and the Number 10 Policy Unit to suggest post-Brexit tobacco and nicotine policy reforms in October 2020 and followed up with another letter in May 2021 with proposals set out a wider policy agenda along the same lines.
Our recommendations are just as relevant now – in fact more so considering the announcements this week – as they were then and fit both post-Brexit reform and the levelling-up initiative well. Based on driving behaviour change through consent and consumer choice rather than what some members of the public see as coercion, the proposals are simple, involve minimal cost to the taxpayer and we believe they would be effective in aiding the government’s Smokefree 2030 aspiration. Namely:
1. Lift the ban on oral tobacco (snus) and properly regulate all smokeless tobacco
2. Raise the limit on nicotine concentration in vaping liquids to allow vaping products to compete more effectively with cigarettes
3. Replace bans on advertising of vaping products on TV, radio, internet and in publications with controls on themes and placement
4. Replace blanket bans on advertising of low-risk tobacco products with controls on themes and placement
5. Replace excessive and inappropriate warnings on vaping products with risk communications that encourage smokers to try switching
6. Replace excessive and inappropriate warnings on non-combustible tobacco products
7. Allow and enable candid communication of relative risk to consumers
8. Adopt a fresh approach to pack inserts for both vaping products and cigarettes to encourage switching to lower risk products
9. Remove wasteful restrictions on vaping product tank and e-liquid container size that have no discernible purpose
10. Recognise and regulate novel oral nicotine products
On the opportunities presented by Brexit, the government has many more options for helping people to quit smoking now we are out of the EU, but we have seen very little appetite for taking advantage of these so far. In fact, we have noticed a worrying trend of parliamentary messaging which seems to be favouring vaping but moving away from harm reduction in all its other forms. The regularly repeated government mantra that “all tobacco products are harmful” fails to recognise the huge difference in risk between combustible tobacco and far safer non-combustible alternatives such as heated tobacco and snus.
As our proposals set out, the UK government now has the option of removing some of the arbitrary rules imposed on vaping products under the Tobacco Products Directive such as bottle and tank sizes which serve no valid purpose except to frustrate vapers and deter smokers who may otherwise choose to switch, and the UK could also choose to liberalise the cap on nicotine strength which we believe is set too low under TPD regulations to adequately attract hard-to-reach smokers.
There is also still no reason whatsoever for perpetuating the EU ban on snus in the UK. Sweden and Norway – where snus is widely available – both recently reported even lower smoking rates than ever with combustible tobacco becoming a niche product as people switch to snus instead. Smoking prevalence in Sweden is now down to an enviable 6% while Norway looks to be on the verge of a smoke-free generation as smoking among 16- to 24-year-olds has dropped from 12% to 1% in a decade.
On levelling-up, research has consistently shown that smoking is more prevalent in lower socioeconomic groups. The government can seek to improve economic conditions for less well-off communities but to achieve the levelling-up of life expectancy and improve wellbeing, ensuring wide availability of all reduced risk nicotine options for smokers – and, crucially, ensuring they are aware of them - is not just a wise idea, but also a cost-effective one.
We intend to write again to the government soon to re-emphasise the value in our proposals and how they dovetail with this week’s policy announcements. We invite NNA supporters to do the same by contacting their MP and directing them to our sensible proposals.