Lack of action hides behind bizarre headline that smoking age could be set to rise to 21
On May 20th The Telegraph featured a news item with the headline, “Legal smoking age could rise to 21 after ‘radical’ review”. Of course, it then went on to say that the Government is really unlikely to adopt this. It would be unpopular, so back bench Tory MPs would likely not support it. They tend to oppose any policies that look like ‘nanny state’ rules. Besides, would such a policy be likely to achieve anything?
It is hard to think it could achieve much. Prohibition is tricky to enforce. Also, whenever bans are used the basis of age, policy-makers do not always get what they bargained for. Not allowing someone to do something until they are ‘old enough’ can make it seem very attractive. Consequently an 18 year old might feel very sophisticated jumping the gun by a few years. As a result, they may well want to start smoking earlier than some arbitrary age limit. However, aside from the headline, the Telegraph article hides a few things that are more troubling.
Sajid Javid requested Javed Khan’s ‘radical’ smoking review earlier this year. It was due to publish this week, but there is a delay because of ‘scheduling pressures’. This means it joins a host of promised papers that have been overdue. The Tobacco Control Plan was due last summer. OHID’s latest e-cigarette evidence review was due almost 2 months ago. However, one of the longest delays so far was a Government ‘PIR’.
The Post Implementation Review of the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016 was due within 5 years of the regulations going into place. That should have been on May 18th 2021. In March 2022, they finally came up with rather anaemic looking review. They had squandered yet another opportunity to get vaping to replace smoking faster. Furthermore, they missed the chance to reduce the environmental impact of vaping. The return of 20ml e-liquid bottles could hugely reduce waste plastic in the UK.
Instead of any of these opportunities, the review simply stated that the Government will consider rule changes in its plans for a Smokefree 2030. Well it is 2022 now, and the ground is coming up to meet us fast. It is a good idea to pull the ripcord. Much better that than consider pulling it when we are even closer to bumping into a deadline.
Smoking age to rise? More fake news
The UK Government now sees vaping as key in getting the UK to its 2030 Smokefree goal. Of course, few newspaper articles, tabloid or broadsheet, can resist questioning the safety of vaping, and this was their chance. The Telegraph article does so by reminding us of a 2020 article in which… Wait for it… They questioned the safety of vaping. That article is chock full of references to cross-sectional studies, and the doubts over vaping consistently seeded by the WHO. In short, nothing that could be deemed credible. But it is still likely to deter a few smokers that could be vaping, and that is just plain wrong.
The journalist could have looked for something a little more current. They could have found a letter published by The Lancet, no less, on May 14th this year. In that letter New Zealand epidemiologists Robert Beaglehole and Ruth Bonita criticise the WHO’s approach to e-cigarettes. Importantly, they urge The Lancet to endorse actively the harm reduction aspects of vaping. Additionally, they also urge them to add their voice to calls for an independent review of the WHO’s tobacco control policies. Policies that, put simply, are just not working.
The article also states that, “the long term risks of vaping are unknown”. This was probably true 10 years ago. However, a lot of people have been vaping consistently since then. There has been a lot of progress on the spectrum between “unknown” and “known” as time has passed. If anything, vaping carries far fewer concerns for credible researchers now than it did in 2012. The long-term risks of vaping are now doubtless very low when compared with smoking. They may turn out to be very low in absolute terms, no more risky than drinking coffee perhaps.
Hope for the future
One thing put forward in the article is the potential that additional taxes on tobacco companies might be collected. This income would evidently be used to encourage smokers to quit. This could take the form, at least in part, of providing NHS services with vape products for smokers. While this might not make a huge difference, it is likely to have more effect than a legal smoking age rise to 21.
The best any government could do is to be clear to everyone that vaping is much, much safer than smoking. Smokers, doctors, healthcare professionals and everyone else needs to understand that part. It would make quitting an easier choice for many.