How Long Until Smoking is History?

Last night I attended a private event in London called ‘How long until smoking is history?’. Now, aside from my initial reaction to the question of the event which many of my regular readers should be able to guess, I was curious about the event.

Especially given who was behind it. The New Statesman ‘in association with Philip Morris International’.

I say ‘private’ as the event wasn’t listed on the EventBrite website, you could only get tickets via a special, password-protected link. Imagine my surprise when I was asked by the jewel robber extraordinaire Dick Puddlecote if I would like to go. Admittedly I was on my honeymoon at the time and didn’t realise exactly when this event was. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to make it. Fortunately, I did.

The event was described thus:

Last year, the Government published its new Tobacco Control Plan for England that outlines a range of proposals to achieve a ‘smoke-free generation’.

More recently, Public Health England outlined a series of ambitious ideas to encourage smokers to switch to less harmful alternatives including encouraging hospitals to sell e-cigarettes and converting smoking shelters to vaping shelters.

Philip Morris International has committed itself to a smoke-free future and commissioned a report from Frontier Economics, ‘Towards a Smoke-free England’, to help understand the potential timescales for England to become smoke-free.

This event will discuss when, based on current trends, England may become smoke-free, and how this might be achieved sooner.

I’ve written about the new Tobacco Control Plan before, and while it is a laudable goal for any government to substantially reduce smoking prevalence, and in the case of the UK they’d like to see it to below %10 (average across the various social groups outlined in ‘The Plan’). But.

It’s a big but. PMI is, not to put too fine a point on it, taking a dump on their customers of combustible tobacco. Particularly with their bold “, we want to quit cigarettes” statement over the new year. Sure, invest in reduced risk products I’ve got no issue with that. Given that smoking prevalence is on the decline, particularly in the West, the returns from combustible tobacco will also decrease – meaning less cash for the shareholders in the long term, so PMI – like BAT, JTI and RJR need to broaden their product offerings either via expensive (and intensive) R&D, or strategic acquisitions.

The event was chaired by health journalist Anna Hodgekiss with Dr Roger Henderson (GP and smoking cessation expert), Sarah Jakes (NNA) and Mark Littlewood (IEA). There was also a short presentation by Nick Fitzpatrick of Frontier Economics that highlighted estimates of smoking rates between now and…. 2050 when some predict the rate to be at, or near zero.

On that, I suspect the prevalence rate will continue its decline – likely without further intervention from the public health and tobacco control lobbies. Especially if they keep their grubby mitts off novel products such as heat-not-burn and anything else some smart cookie comes up with. However, as has already been noted on the current prevalence decline – which as many will know, dropped significantly since 1974 with a levelling out around the time of the smoking ban – funny that.

Office of National Statistics: Adult smoking habits in the UK: 2015

Should the market continue to provide alternatives, and it will given the advances in battery technology, in particular, the prevalence will continue to decline. However, there will come a point, succinctly highlighted by Mark Littlewood, where the decline will naturally level off as it becomes harder to get people to stop or switch as confirmed smokers (aka Mark’s “stubborn bastards”) dig their heels in and continue to smoke regardless of what alternatives are available.

Some say that the “smoke-free” target measure is 5% prevalence. If, as Mark wryly noted last night, that is the case then Britain heroin free.

I did note that Dr Henderson seemed a touch more pragmatic about offering cessation advice than many doctors are. He almost got it. Almost. The British people, in their wisdom, have decided this (e-cigs) is where we are going”. But e-cigs are not the only option, at least now, and if the ECJ rule in our favour, Snus could end up being made available here too. Who knows what the market will come up with next, as long as retailers and manufacturers can advertise:

If, as mentioned, the definition of “smoke-free” is 5% prevalence (or lower), that’s still approximately 2 million people in the UK alone. To get there, or lower, there needs to be a wide, and appealing range of products that are around 95% to 100% the same as smoking in terms of derived pleasure and sensation. This is why e-cigs alone won’t cut it. It’s why snus alone won’t cut it.

My view is simple:

There will never be a completely “smoke-free” Britain, or world. Smoking is, and always has been, normal. This is why tobacco control and public health make ‘good’ use of the word “denormalisation”. You might as well ask the sun to not shine in a clear-blue-sky, or the rain to not be wet. It’s total bollocks.

There has to be something for everybody. Including combustible tobacco.

Provide good, or better alternatives that smokers want and let the market decide.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stick around to meet and greet many people after the Q&A because the train times, quite frankly, suck. But I did get a chance to meet Harry Shapiro, catch up (albeit briefly) with Simon Clark, Judy Gibson, Sarah Jakes and Jess Harding. It’s also why I don’t travel to London often (if at all). But, credit to the New Statesman for putting aside a long-held distaste of tobacco companies to organise the event, and credit to PMI – on this occasion anyway – it was a good, enjoyable event.

Ps. Remind me to never go out on a school night again.