Harm reduction advocates might just be wolves in sheeps' clothing.
- Tobacco businesses are now part of the vape sector, with ownership or shares in several vape brands and chains of stores.
- The vape sector has become a huge part of both publicly funded and consumer led smoking cessation, particularly in the UK.
Should these truths combine to mean businesses that manufacture combustible cigarettes can have an active involvement in publicly funded smoking cessation? Of course not.
How could it possibly be acceptable that a disease and a cure are both administered by the same people? If big tobacco businesses have any involvement in smoking cessation, they are at best conflicted, but at worst, seeking involvement in the endgame of their own livelihoods. International law prevents such involvement at government level in almost every country in the World, including the UK, but tobacco businesses continue to peck away at the edges with seemingly well-intended actions. The road to hell is paved with these, and when they backfire, they can do so spectacularly.
A different type of “fake news”, or just a little misleading?
Recently at least six local newspapers ran articles claiming poor value for money from local “stop smoking” services. Northumberland1 and Redbridge2 councils were both called out by local papers for spending £1000 and £5000 of taxpayers’ money per successful quit respectively. While this might seem expensive, the figures completely ignore the huge savings to the NHS, to society, and to consumers themselves, when someone manages to move away from a deadly addiction to smoking.
With a lifetime 20-a-day smoking habit now running in at well over £160,000, and the high costs of cancer and COPD treatment that so many lifetime smokers need towards the end of their lives, the cost of assisting quitting needs to be put in perspective. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario where it is not worth investing in helping people to stop smoking, as it currently costs the UK economy around £11bn a year.3
The plot thickens a little from here, as the Guardian4 national newspaper exposed the source of the local newspaper stories, a press release from a PR company called Pagefield. The press release failed to disclose that Pagefield were acting in the employ of a cigarette manufacturing giant, although this was later admitted in a further communication. Several “big tobacco” businesses claim they have a firm commitment to reducing smoking rates and reducing the harm from smoking, but of course continue to reap the majority of their revenues and profits from the manufacture and sale of combustible cigarettes.
A big tobacco spokesperson told the Guardian that the press release was an attempt to raise the debate about the cost-effectiveness of alternative quit interventions, focusing quite specifically on vaping. In the case of the Northumbrian Gazette article this was partially effective, but the East London and West Essex Guardian only mentions the cost to the council, so was a complete failure to do other than present smoking cessation in a negative light.
A risk to perception of the independent vape trade?
The clear risk from such big tobacco PR activity is that it could quite easily undermine relationships we and the wider independent sector have built over years. Deborah Arnott of health charity ASH described the press release as a “covert ad for e-cigs”, and to hear this from a very rational advocate of our sector’s strengths, and critic of its weaknesses, made for particularly troubling reading. An underhand attempt to promote the vaping product set has been associated with an attack on public health stakeholders, who are in many cases just starting to understand and embrace the potential that vaping has to offer. To say this is unhelpful would be an understatement.
That a company might cynically comment on the costs, paid out of a public purse, to put right the harm that same company has done to many generations of smokers, and continues to profit from, is unwelcome, and potentially very damaging. That they go on to say this was done in the interests of vaping can mean reputational harm to the independent vape sector by association. Big tobacco businesses are actively prohibited from involvement in publicly funded smoking cessation policy, so we have to question whether it is reasonable for them to comment at all.
Who should be helping public health stakeholders?
Having firmly established that under no circumstances should tobacco businesses have any involvement in publicly-funded smoking cessation, independent vape businesses should be, and in the case of Totally Wicked, we are very much involved. Totally Wicked is working with a number of Local Authorities, City and County Councils and NHS Trusts to make sure vape products are part of the stop-smoking offer available to would-be quitters. Because we are independent of tobacco businesses, we are also able to work openly with Local and National Government and their agencies, often through the Independent British Vape Trade Association (IBVTA).
We know that vaping can be an important tool for smoking cessation. We also know it is not the only one, but we know it is the most effective yet. It is also less costly than many of the other tools available. However there is no “them versus us” between vaping and smoking cessation, as we are all working towards the same goal. While our sector started out with a slightly uncomfortable coexistence with stop smoking services, this has changed dramatically over the last few years, leading to many positive and successful collaborations.
Combustible tobacco’s endgame
The tobacco industry cannot have, nor should it ever be allowed a part in this. Whether the PR agency’s actions while working for a tobacco business were an honest misjudgement, or a more malign attempt to drive a wedge between smoking cessation stakeholders and the vape sector does not actually matter. Controlling the tobacco endgame is something they cannot be a part of, not because of what they do, but because of what they are, and what they have done to become that thing.
While cigarette businesses are quite clearly free to produce much less harmful products than the ones they built their businesses on, and accepting that we must compete and work with them in an open market, they should never see themselves as above international laws, or responsibility for just how they have grown those businesses. Independent vape businesses grew from a problem that the tobacco industry generated and failed to solve, led by an insurgency from consumers that knew there was a better way. The danger of blurring the distinction between the two business types should be self-evident.
There is never any need for doubt about why Totally Wicked does what it does, because from day one to present, it has always been the same: We empower smokers to transform their lives. We will always strive to support those that genuinely share that mission wherever we can.