Politicians wouldn’t ban motorcycle helmets, so why do they ban safer tobacco products?
Both of these groups should, at least, be able to support the repeal of laws which are explicitly harmful to public health. Yet an astonishing number exist around the world. Two glaring examples are bans on vaping in Australia, and snus in the UK.
The last 6 years have seen a vaping revolution in Britain, in which millions of men and women have opted for a safer alternative to smoking. The arrival of e-cigarettes has played a huge role in this transformation.
Between 2007 and 2012, the UK smoking rate plateaued at around 20%, despite the introduction of the smoking ban in 2007. Yet when vaping became mainstream in 2012 this caused the number of smokers to reach 15.1% by 2017, coinciding with an almost identical uptake in vaping amongst 5.1% of the population.
Yet Australia, a country many Brits admire for its beautiful beaches, humorous citizens and astonishingly good cricket ball sanding capabilities, has actually implemented laws to obstruct the vaping revolution and its overwhelmingly positive effects. Take Brad Hazzard, the Health Minister of New South Wales, who recently introduced laws imposing a fine of $550 on anyone caught vaping in a public space.
Australia’s firm anti-vaping stance has disincentived a huge number of potential switchers. Before vaping took off, British smoking rates were around 3 percentage points higher than Australia. Yet following the vaping revolution, the UK rate has dropped below Australia’s – as you can see from the graph below.
Sadly, the Australians are not alone in suffering the poor judgement of their politicians on tobacco harm reduction. Edwina Currie, whose infamous remarks in the late 1980s ignited a national salmonella scare and plunged the egg industry into crisis, took a similar dislike to a new brand of chewing tobacco due for release on the UK market around the same time. Currie, then Public Health Minister, intervened to ensure a ban on all oral tobacco products, including snus. This ban has almost certainly led to many British citizens dying younger than they otherwise would have done, given access to the world’s oldest tobacco harm reduction product.
Snus, for the uninitiated, is a very small tea bag of snuff tobacco which the user places under their top lip. The devices date back to eighteenth century Sweden. Snus has become increasingly popular over the last 40 years, as Swedes became aware of the dangers of conventional tobacco and rightly viewed snus as a much safer alternative.
The results are striking. Sweden has Europe’s lowest male lung cancer death rate, the lowest male death rate from smoking-related cardiovascular diseases, and the lowest male death rate from other cancers attributable to tobacco. Swedish women aren’t quite as keen as their male counterparts on Snus and so smoke in similar numbers to other Europeans. As a result, Swedish women have a similar rate of tobacco-related death rate compared to women elsewhere in the EU.
The EU banned Snus in 1992, believing it caused oral cancer – although extensive research has since revealed this to be untrue. Sweden, having used snus for over two centuries, secured an exemption from the ban while negotiating their entry into the EU – and the data reveal a perfect case study in the dangers and unintended consequences of government short-termism.
Our departure from the European Union now gives Britain a golden opportunity to set our own tobacco control policies. If vaping is anything to go by, we would hope to lead the way in harm reduction by legalising the sale of snus and saving lives in the process.
Despite the current ban on the sale of the product in place, snus retains a small but loyal following in the UK, since users are legally entitled to use it in a personal capacity, by ordering snus from the Swedish or Norwegian market. Through their excise duties, British consumers inadvertently fund the schools and healthcare systems of Norway and Sweden rather than the UK’s. After Brexit, the Treasury could retain these revenues to fund British public services, or to lower taxes.
The EU-wide snus ban and vaping restrictions in Australia are illogical, reckless and self-destructive laws, tantamount to a country making it illegal for individuals to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle. If anything, this analogy doesn’t even go far enough. Though wearing a motorcycle helmet is clearly safer, it still doesn’t offer anything like the same level of risk reduction as switching from smoking to safer alternatives such as snus or vaping.
For these reasons, the legalisation of the sale of snus in the UK should be top of the Department of Health and Treasury’s wish lists once the UK leaves the EU.