I confess to having always enjoyed party conference season. This is an annual ritual where the main UK political parties gather at a major city with the aim being to enthuse their membership and map out a vision attractive to the voting public. When I was a Civil Servant, they often provided a useful insight into the direction of future policy. Away from the main platform you could, on occasion, discover events where politicians would stray from their doctrinaire trenches and engage in meaningful debate.
So, with hope rather than expectation I dipped into the virtual New Statesman fringe event being run alongside the Labour Party Conference. The session on How Does England go smoke-free by 2030? attracted my interest. Now it has to be acknowledged that much of the political interest in tobacco harm reduction has tended to come from the libertarian right. And, while issues of individual liberty are hugely important, the lack of apparent interest from other political quarters in the increasing inequality associated with smoking and its associated harms has long frustrated me, might this provide a glimmer of hope?
Settling in front of my laptop I was quickly, and pleasantly, surprised. Alex Norris MP, the Shadow Minister for Health and Social Care started off by confessing to being a “public health sinner” who used to smoke and gave it up with the help of vape. A bold and honest start which ensured my continuing interest. He was joined on the panel by Dr Moira Gilchrist, from PMI, and Mark Oates, Director of We Vape. No one from mainstream tobacco control was on the panel, possibly in order to preserve their ideological purity, but I hope that many were listening. While it is clearly important to maintain a healthy scepticism about the motivation and values of big tobacco, or indeed other major industries, the 50 minutes of this session highlighted how smoking is increasingly concentrated amongst the least well off and groups already suffering ill health or exclusion (incidentally Action on Smoking and Health (UK) have just released Smoking, Employability and Earnings which reinforces the economic element of the issue). It also provided an indication of how we improve this dire situation.
The discussion covered a range of alternatives to smoking, consideration about taxation, advertising and how to engage the “hard to reach”. The need for clear and accurate information was raised and the harm caused to smokers when the relative safety of vape and other alternatives are undermined. The shadow minister earned a gold star for admitting he did not know much about snus - oh for all politicians and policy makers to be so honest - but also by committing to follow the evidence, and a clear commitment to reducing harm. There was also clear understanding that if the UK is to achieve its goal of being smokefree by 2030 then safer alternatives to cigarettes have a role to play.
Encouraging those who can’t, or will not, give up smoking to switch to safer alternatives has the potential to improve the health of our poorest communities quickly and so help address stark health and financial inequality. This session gave me hope that this understanding might be about to spread across the political divide, and we may even have found a new champion who really understands the communities who would benefit most from safer nicotine products.