Today, the UK has one of the lowest smoking prevalence rates in Europe – a testament to the work of successive governments in embracing tobacco harm reduction as a strategy to complement regulations aimed at smoking prevention and cessation. Indeed, significant progress has been achieved to date, with the UK seeing smoking rates fall to 14.1 per cent from 30 per cent 30 years ago.
An evidence-based approach – anchored in scientific research and leveraging the potential of better alternatives to cigarettes for men and women who would otherwise continue to smoke – has helped accelerate this change in recent years. But despite these efforts, there are still around seven million adults in the UK who smoke today – with two-thirds of them saying that they want to quit.
As a scientist at Philip Morris International, and with experience in the pharmaceutical sector, I have seen first-hand the potential of science to make a real difference in people’s lives and improve public health. A smoke-free future, where we end the use of combustible tobacco, is within reach. To get there as fast as possible, promoting a science-based conversation about how best to enable smokers to make better choices, is more important than ever.
The challenge of going smoke-free by 2030
Beyond the more prominent and immediate health challenges we have faced this year, addressing smoking remains one of the UK’s long-term public health priorities. A clear vision has been set by the government, which is committed to making England smoke-free by 2030 – a goal that PMI supports. However, analysis of smoking prevalence data from 2018 concluded that England will not go smoke-free until after 2050, with a gap of almost 30 years separating the first and last parts of the country predicted to go smoke-free, unless significant action is taken.
As part of the effort to cut nationwide smoking rates, greater targeted support may therefore be needed to reduce smoking prevalence among different socio-economic groups and eliminate inequalities. Around one in four people in the UK in manual and routine occupations, such as labourers, bar staff, lorry drivers, receptionists and care workers, smoke – compared with just one in ten in managerial occupations. Meanwhile, according to a recent report funded by Philip Morris Limited, those in the LGBTQ+ community were 46 per cent more likely to smoke than the general population.
Embracing science-led innovation to support progressive regulation
I firmly believe evidence-led innovation is critical to reducing smoking rates further and faster. Over many years, the UK government has shown a commitment to tackling smoking through science-backed regulation that puts smokers first.
An increasing number of health authorities, including those in the UK, recognise that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful than smoking for those men and women who would otherwise continue to smoke1. They are vocal in their support for e-cigarettes to be used as an effective harm reduction tool to complement existing strategies designed to discourage initiation and encourage cessation of smoking. Alongside this, we have seen the creation of a regulatory framework that has been crucial to getting around three million UK smokers to switch to smoke-free alternatives.
Regular use of e-cigarettes in the UK has, however, plateaued among former and current smokers for the past three years. This stalling is not a critique of the effectiveness of e-cigarettes. Rather, it is an indication that adult smokers could potentially benefit from access to a wider portfolio of innovative, less harmful smoke-free products that meet their preferences in terms of taste, ritual and behaviours, and are supported by risk-proportionate regulation. This is how we can continue the successes we have seen so far and help reach the 2030 goal.
Supporting adult smokers with accurate information
Critically, adult smokers also need more accurate information about smoke-free products. There is no room for complacency when it comes to awareness about alternatives and it is important that the facts and science remain front and centre of all conversations with adults who smoke. Yet, a concerning information gap still exists, creating confusion among smokers and impeding them from making informed choices.
Recent government public health research shows that adult smokers in the UK increasingly believe that vaping is equally or more harmful than smoking cigarettes.
In addition, many people mistakenly assume that most of the harm of smoking comes from the nicotine, whereas in fact there’s scientific consensus that nicotine, while addictive and not risk-free, is not the primary cause of smoking-related diseases. The primary cause is the harmful chemicals released or generated by the burning of tobacco and contained in the smoke.
As a tobacco company, PMI is committed to delivering a smoke-free future. Over the past ten years, we have invested more than £6bn on the research, development and testing of less harmful smoke-free alternatives. We deploy a rigorous science-led assessment programme of these products, which is open and transparent, so our findings can be accessed and independently verified by the wider scientific community.
To be clear, our smoke-free products are not risk-free and are not marketed as cessation devices. The best choice for smokers is to quit tobacco and nicotine altogether.
Delivering a smoke-free future
For decades, the UK has championed tobacco harm reduction, focusing on controls and measures that deter people from smoking and encourage the use of smoke-free alternatives for those adults who would otherwise continue to smoke. These efforts must continue.
We at PMI are committed to working with government, regulators and health bodies to ensure that adults who would otherwise continue to smoke have the best chance of abandoning cigarettes altogether. In doing so, we can play our part in helping to seize the huge public health opportunity and together make smoke-free 2030 a reality.
1For example, see research by the Royal College of Physicians (2016), the Royal College of General Practitioners (2017), Cancer Research UK (2019), Public Health England (2019), and the British Medical Association (2020).