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Our scatter-gun approach to be smoke-free by 2030 is failing

4 min read

My parliamentary friend and colleague, Charles Walker MP, held an important debate yesterday in Westminster on progress to achieving a smoke-free England by 2030.

Let’s face it, politics can be short-sighted. We have the habit of looking no further than the next election, let alone eight years into the future.

But what kind of country will we be at the next election? Where will we be in eight years time? Until recently the government was answering this question with two simple words: levelling up.

In 2019 the phrase “levelling up” began as a general indication of intent; signalling to voters that we ‘got’ the issue. Today, the phrase has been populated with the announcement of tangible targets that will define success and failure for levelling up.  

The ambitions were as bold as they were measurable. Poorer regions would be richer. People would enjoy equal opportunity, regardless of birthplace. If that wasn’t enough, we were going to raise life expectancy.

We must encourage smokers to access smoke-free alternatives to help them stub out this habit for good

Few criticised these ambitions. It was the timeframe associated with delivering them that gave cause for concern.

The government has promised to level up Britain by 2030. Why, many asked, would ten years be needed? Well in fairness to the government, change does indeed take time. Obesity, for instance. You cannot legislate for people to become thinner overnight. We all know that the work we do today to get fitter will pay off down the line.

However, frustration is justified when solutions already exist which can be actioned immediately. For example, the government’s target to be smoke-free by 2030. This ambition has been in place long before the utterance of levelling up. It is something that colleagues have been working towards for many years. Yet, it is a goal that we will fail miserably to achieve with current policies.

According to Cancer Research, our last cigarette will be stubbed out in 2037. With about 90,000 people a year dying from the habit before then. That’s a whopping 1.35 million potentially avoidable deaths. A population the size of Birmingham will die between now and 2037.

Our continued scatter-gun approach to weaning smokers off cigarettes is failing. A fresh look is clearly needed. This could take the form of a laser-like targeted approach to get existing smokers to switch to a less harmful alternative.

Smokers don’t smoke because they think it’s good for them. The health risks are well known. We need to give smokers the less harmful alternatives and let them know why they are preferable to cigarettes. 

So, how best can we achieve this? There must be impetus by decision-makers in the Department for Health and indeed, the government, to introduce a multi-category approach. It must encourage smokers to access a wider range of non-combustible, smoke-free alternatives to traditional cigarettes, to help them stub out this habit for good.

Ultimately, this approach would see combustible cigarettes dealt with differently from reduced risk, non-combustible products – something we are just not seeing at the moment, to the detriment of our nation’s health.

Such products include vapes, but also nicotine pouches and heat-not-burn products. By focussing less on the presence of the shibboleth tobacco in a product, but more on the presence of harm through combustion – the harmful element of smoking cigarettes – this would send a clear message that the UK is world leader in smoking cessation.

Perhaps if all “safer” smoke-free products were placed in the same category supported by a tax and regulatory differential to combustible cigarettes, smokers would be more able to identify these significantly less harmful alternative.

As we have already seen, our current approach to getting smokers to quit this awful habit for good is failing. A new multi-category approach could well be the answer.

I am not saying that all non-combustible products are a wholly healthy choice, but when it comes to smoking, we cannot let our judgement be clouded by letting perfect be the enemy of good – especially when there are lives at stake.

There is also the issue of communication. If existing smokers do not know about these alternative products, how can we expect them to switch.

It is well known that vaping is 95 per cent safer than smoking combustible cigarettes. Yet, misinformation around vapes has been growing in the UK, with the majority of people believing they are as harmful as smoking. It is of the utmost importance that we seek to communicate the truth around such products directly to smokers.

If levelling up means anything then, it must begin with parity in life expectancy. Where better to start with encouraging people to give up what is the single greatest cause of preventable illness and premature death in the UK?

Whilst some things do indeed take a long time, the path to a smoke-free 2030 is possible. It is imperative that the government recognise this and address the issue without delay.


Adam Afriyie is the Conservative MP for Windsor.

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