Last week, we reached another milestone towards creating a smoke-free generation and tackling youth vaping when the government published its response to its recent consultation.
The headlines have focused on the proposed ban on disposable vapes. But while the accessibility of vapes to children and young people and their impact on the environment is clearly a serious problem, I am as – if not more – concerned with ensuring that the proposed raise in the age of sale of cigarettes goes ahead.
Smoking kills. It kills 64,000 people in the UK every year and causes untold harm to thousands of others through ill-health and diseases including stillbirths, lung disease, heart disease, stroke, dementia, and is responsible for a quarter of cancer deaths in the UK. As well as causing harm to individuals, smoking also injures those around them through the effects of passive smoking, and costs the UK roughly £20.5bn per year through health and social care services, premature death, and reduced productivity and employment.
The truth is that most people who smoke wish they had never started but because the tobacco industry specifically targets children and young people, they start young, quickly become addicted and then find it incredibly hard to quit.
In fact, over 80 per cent of smokers started before they turned 20. The reason this legislation is so significant is because by gradually raising the age of sale, future generations of children and young people will be protected from ever becoming addicted in the first place. The evidence is overwhelming – and importantly the public support the plans too.
Vaping is a more complicated issue. The government are absolutely right to act – disposable vapes are both far too affordable and accessible to children, and are having a damaging impact on the environment. They are, however, a useful tool for people trying to quit and so it is really important that we strike a good balance between discouraging people – especially children – from starting vaping and ensuring that vapes remain available for adult smokers who want to quit.
As the chief medical officer Chris Whitty says, “If you smoke, vaping is much safer; if you don’t smoke, don’t vape.” Marketing vapes to children and young people is absolutely unacceptable. Making packaging plain, banning enticing flavours, and keeping vapes out of view are all very positive steps forward, as is the banning of selling alternative products like nicotine pouches to children.
We know that regulation works – we’ve seen it work already with cigarettes and so it is a logical and sensible move to apply the same restrictions to nicotine products that the industry has invented as a way of extending their product range and customer base in response to falling numbers of smokers.
As legislation did with cigarettes, the new rules will help combat the industry’s marketing message that its products are not just acceptable, but aspirational and glamorous. Reducing their attractiveness and accessibility will help combat the targeting of children and young people, which is what this legislation is all about – protecting the next generation from ever becoming addicted to what we know is a lethal product.
Of course, the legislation could go further – reducing affordability is another form of regulation that we have seen work with other harmful products, for example with minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Scotland, which has reduced the number of deaths directly caused by alcohol consumption by 13.4 per cent.
However, what is important is that we recognise the opportunity the legislation proposal is giving us: a unique chance to change the nation’s health by preventing thousands of deaths and cases of disease.
But over the coming weeks and months, there will be significant pressure from the tobacco industry on MPs to vote against the legislation. After all, their business relies on encouraging children to buy an addictive product so that they continue to make a profit – regardless of the consequences.
In the face of this industry lobbying – which will undoubtedly be backed by millions of pounds – we must keep the facts at the forefront of the conversation so that when MPs are called to vote, they can do so with all the information to hand and make a balanced decision on behalf of their constituents. No one in the public health community wants to see this legislation fail. It is as significant as Joseph Bazalgette’s water sanitation system for London, or the introduction of mass vaccination programmes. It will pave the way to a myriad of benefits not just for individuals, but for their families, communities and the country as a whole.