Is UK Tobacco Policy A Failure?   mdi-fullscreen

It is the Department of Complacency. For decades DH’s tobacco policy has missed opportunities, scored own goals and only made progress because its greatest errors have been overridden by reality. This is after all the department which repeatedly tried to ban vaping. If MEPs had listened to Jeremy Hunt’s plea then every e-cigarette on the market would have been banned…

Fortunately in 2013 the European Parliament ignored DH’s instincts and listened to the vapers flooding their inboxes with stories of lifelong smoking habits overcome by vaping.

Yet DH did manage to get some of what it wanted in Europe: frustratingly small e-liquid bottles. Unhelpfully low nicotine levels. And, of course, an advertising ban which stops vaping taking market share from smoking. All of this to the intense frustration of Public Health England which has long seen the power of vaping in making quitting attractive. Arguably Sainsbury’s decision to stock Juul will do far more to reduce smoking than anything DH is doing…

How did Jeremy Hunt get it so wrong? He listened to the Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies, who told the New Scientist that the UK faced three main health threats – binge drinking, obesity – and vaping. [sic]

Today three million people in the UK are filling their lungs with vapour rather than smoke. Even the most virulent anti-vapers admit that it is much safer.

The undesired success of vaping has left DH sitting on a steady fall in smoking. But the UK is still far behind the leaders in the EU’s smoking league table which shows 16% smoking here but only 5% in Sweden. That level is a pipe-dream for DH. Yet even the Swedes looks like slaves to smoking compared with neighbouring Norway where only 1% of young women now smoke. That’s plunged from 16% in 2001. Norway is Big Tobacco’s nightmare…

So what are the Scandinavians doing to quit? They use a pasteurised oral product called snus which is even safer than vaping.

Yet guess what? DH was the brains behind the 1992 EU ban on snus.

And the impact of that ban? In successive studies, scientists have estimated that if snus was allowed to compete with smoking, hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved – every year. Yet for DH there is no greater shame than being shown to be wrong. That‘s why in 2018, despite decades of science, DH is still encouraging the European Court of Justice to continue the ban on snus. DH is also giving disingenuous Parliamentary Question responses that snus is not completely safe. Nothing is.

There is one other grotesque failure. Half a million South Asians use chewed tobacco products which the UK’s most senior scientists have warned are awash with carcinogens. That is why South Asian women suffer three times more oral cancer than other women. Yet DH refuses to act because it would involve questioning South Asian culture. Its policy is both racist and misguided.

So on the big decisions DH can be counted on to get it wrong. This cascade of errors comes from a departmental culture where failed medics turned policymakers are believed over scientists, and where drug companies have far more influence than nicotine consumers. In modern Britain even our intelligence services have an instinct for transparency. Yet DH has retreated into its bunker – deigning occasionally to shoot the messenger but loath to engage in debate.

All is not bleak: in its recent report the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology started to hold DH accountable over tobacco policy. Perhaps Brexit will provide the opportunity to correct the historic follies?  

Tomorrow: the UK’s Worst Overseas Aid Blunder

This article was sponsored by which works for supporters and producers of alternatives to smoking. More information:
[1] Jeremy Hunt’s letter asking MEPs to effectively ban e-cigs:
[2] New Scientist: ‘Don’t let vaping, obesity and boozing become norms’:
[3] EU Eurobarometer 2017: Sweden smoking rate – 5%, UK – 16% p.27:
[4] Norway 1% smoking rate: among young women smoking fell from 30% to 1% in seventeen years (2000 to 2017): Norwegian Smoking Data (select data using tick icons and then download to Excel):
[5] 200,000 annual excess deaths caused by EU snus ban: Rodu and Cole, 2004:
[6] 355,000 annual excess deaths caused by EU ban on snus. Snus Commission report, 2017. See page 19:
[7] Parliamentary Response: 21 February 2017 HL5523. Lord O’Shaughnessy on snus: “A range of evidence has been considered showing that there is no safe way to consume tobacco”:
[8] South Asian chewing tobacco: Government chemist shows harmful chemicals, Tobacco Control (2006):
[9] 2006: South Asian women using chewed tobacco are 3.7 times more likely to suffer from oral cancer:
[10] 2018: UK Commons Science and Technology Committee: recommends reduced restrictions on vaping and unbanning snus:
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