1828: Where does Britain go next on tobacco harm reduction?

This article was first published on 1828.

When it comes to public health, this government has been busy. It spent much of the last year or so laying out its interventionist strategy on obesity and now, slowly but surely, its focus is shifting towards smoking.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Smoking and Health opened a new chapter when it initiated a Westminster Hall debate on the subject, holding Jo Churchill’s feet to the fire in the process.

Jo Churchill is a junior government minister responsible for ‘prevention, public health and primary care’ – in other words, she is effectively in charge of Britain’s tobacco harm reduction policy. So far, the UK has been a world leader in this field. We have some of the best and most liberal vaping laws in the world, largely thanks to research from Public Health England, but the status quo is under threat and Jo Churchill is in the eye of the storm.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is bearing down on vaping, both in Britain and across the globe. You might have thought its credibility would be tarnished after its year of appalling failures in managing the pandemic which have undoubtedly cost countless lives, but its funders continue to pour money into its coffers for it to push its regressive campaigns.

Even if we put aside the disgrace that is a body of unelected, unaccountable, tyrant-hugging bureaucrats telling the governments of democratic, liberal countries what to do, there are plenty more reasons to be appalled by what the WHO is doing. Transparently pushing nanny statism on a global scale on behalf of the public health lobby, it is actively undermining health outcomes with its unscientific attack on vaping.

Vaping is an indispensable component of any half-decent tobacco harm reduction strategy. There is no ambiguity in the science on this – it is by far and away the best tool for helping unhappy smokers quit, with a success rate of 74 per cent – much higher than nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), or indeed any other quitting method. In 2017, a whopping 50,000 smokers who would otherwise have continued smoking were able to quit as a direct result of vaping products being available to them. The case for keeping vaping accessible is overwhelming.

Jo Churchill and the government more broadly will soon face a stark choice: retain and capitalise on Britain’s world-leading position in science and harm reduction by liberalising vaping laws even further or capitulate to the WHO at the expense of Britons’ health and civil liberties. It seems like a no-brainer but as is so often the case with centralised, bureaucratic policymaking, there is no assurance that sound logic and ample hard evidence will prevail in the end.

The government must stick to the science on this. We should be investing in testing emerging harm-reduction products and adopting an innovative, open-minded approach to public health. We must resist a myopic expansion of the nanny state which would curb civil liberties and damage health outcomes.

For the first time in a generation, Britain has taken back control of its laws. Brexit allowed regulatory sovereignty to be restored to Westminster. This is the first major piece of legislation where we can now deviate from EU rules, set our own agenda and set an example for the rest of the world, showing ourselves off as world leaders in science, charting our own course and making a success of Brexit.

Let’s not waste that chance.

Barely five months into the post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ we have heard so much about, let’s not squander everything we have worked so hard for by mindlessly outsourcing our tobacco harm reduction policy to the World Health Organisation – and allowing the nanny state to grow ever more all-encompassing in the process.

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