The government’s current approach to nicotine and tobacco reminds me of the sex education scene in Mean Girls: ‘Don’t have sex. You’ll get pregnant and die.’ Abstinence may be best contraception in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice. Most of us recognise that abstinence doesn’t work for everyone, so instead we focus on reducing the harms of unwanted pregnancies and STDs by teaching teenagers about contraception. Yet, when it comes to tackling the harms of smoking we still stick to an abstinence-only approach.
We are human and will inevitably fall short of the official advice. So just as we encourage teenagers to use contraception, we should make it easier for adults to switch to safer (but not risk-free) alternatives. Public Health England have to their credit highlighted the relative benefits of vaping by pointing out that it’s at least 95 per cent safer than smoking. In other words, it would take 20 non-smokers to take up vaping to outweigh the good of one smoker switching the other way.
British vaping laws aren’t that Victorian, but there’s room for improvement. While we allow vape shops and vaping in public places, e-cigarette manufacturers face stiff regulation and are prevented from talking about the relative risks of vaping compared with smoking.
The EU’s Tobacco Products Directive is particularly pernicious. Brussels’ restrictions cap tank sizes, regulate nicotine content, and restrict the ability for e-cigarette sellers to market their products effectively. We know from other countries that heavy-handed e-cigarette laws don’t help smokers: in Australia, where e-cigarettes are banned, smokers as a proportion of the population dropped by just 0.6 percentage points between 2013-2016. By contrast, the UK’s relatively liberal approach to vaping lead to smoking rates falling by 2.9 percentage points. Japan also banned e-cigarettes, but they allow heat-not-burn products which has resulted in a significant decline in cigarette sales.
America also takes a more realistic approach to tobacco harm reduction in some areas. Juul, an e-cigarette three times too potent for the UK market, is permitted in the US; it’s created a cult on campuses – ‘heroin chic’ no more, it’s ‘Juul dudes’ now. Despite the public health lobby being in hysterics about the ‘Juul epidemic’, since Juul entered the market in 2015 we’ve seen smoking rates fall by 1.6 per cent from 2016-2017.
We could see similar falls in smoking rates in the UK if we liberalised regulation around advertising. Specifically, e-cigarette companies can’t talk about the relative risk of harm reduction products compared to cigarettes. This curtails their freedom to run an effective advertising campaign aimed at encouraging smokers to switch.
A current example of the effectiveness of advertising is the latest sunscreen campaign with a tattoo of the word sun damage on a child’s face. Just imagine, if an e-cigarette company released a similarly convincing ad: a twenty-a-day ex-supermodel, looking haggard, fag in hand, next to Cara Delevingne vaping away with youthful skin. The switch would be an instant hit among young women. (Saatchi & Saatchi, I’ll send you my invoice.)
The public know about sun damage, but we don’t know enough about the benefits of harm reduction products compared to cigarettes. In fact, the majority of smokers across the UK do not believe that e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes and this situation has got worse over time. ‘Even fewer are aware of the existence of newer reduced-risk products like ‘heat-not-burn’ devices’, warns Daniel Pryor, the author of the latest report from the Adam Smith Institute.
Adverts targeted towards young women have the potential to be the most effective. And it is young women’s lungs that are most blackened by the Tobacco Products Directive, as women are much less likely to switch to vaping than men. While 8.9 per cent of young men vape, for women it is just 2.6 per cent. Women are however continuing to smoke with nearly 16 per cent of women aged 16-24 smoking.
Women haven’t been adopting vaping products in the UK. Perhaps this is due to their chunky appearance compared to a cigarette; their fiddly nature makes it more Airfix than Audrey Hepburn. American women, however, have been using small, skeek available in the States, which resembles a USB stick, rather than a Hornby train.
Liberalising rules and regulations around vaping and heat-not-burn products would allow innovation in advertising and products, ultimately saving ‘over a million years of Britons’ life’. The evidence is on the table, but no-one knows about it. We don’t just need Public Health England, we need Don Draper too.
Sophie Jarvis is a Policy Advisor at the Adam Smith Institute and Programmes Director at The Entrepreneurs Network