Not so fast: is the escape to vape being undermined by cheap tobacco?
Despite constant claims to the contrary, vaping plays a much-needed role in helping people kick the habit of tobacco smoking and adopting something that, yes, may still contain that nicotine hit, but is far healthier. And yet newly released data suggests that this commendable contribution made by e-cigs may be, if not undermined, then far from aided and far from achieving as much as it might. Why? Because of the affordability of cheap cigarette brands in the UK.
Now, it’s true that over the past few years successive UK Governments have increased the price of tobacco, a deliberate ploy to try to cut the number of smokers and deter young people from taking up the habit, but by and large, this has only been the case at the more expensive, more premium end of the cigarette market; the other end of the market – featuring the likes of loose tobacco and, thus, ‘roll-ups’ – remains as cheap as ever. And, therefore, as affordable as ever. This is particularly bad news because, statistically speaking, levels of smoking in the UK are highest in the most economically challenged parts of the country – communities then that inevitably turn most to the cheaper tobacco brands.
Tobacco’s still as cheap as ever
The study (‘Availability and Use of Cheap Tobacco in the United Kingdom 2002–2014: Findings From the International Tobacco Control Project’ published in the Nicotine & Tobacco Research journal), was undertaken by researchers hailing from three esteemed academic institutions, King’s College London, the University of Bath and the UK Centre for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies. And it made stark its findings by pointing out there remains enough choice in combustible tobacco prices to suit everyone’s budgets in the UK. So, whatever you earn then, you’ll still be able to afford a ciggie everyday – which means there isn’t really an effective price-squeeze that’s tempting, let alone forcing you to try to quit.
Data for the study was drawn from in excess of 60,000 smokers in the UK, analysing the varying prices they admitted to paying for tobacco across a 12-year-period – 2002-14. In fact, the research proved that, by simply switching from an increasingly expensive tobacco brand to one of the cheapest, smokers in the year 2014 could end up paying no more for a packet of cigarettes than they did at the study’s outset, in the year 2002. Which is a pretty damning indictment of smoking prevention efforts via control of prices, if ever there were one.
Are equal prices the answer?
The study’s researchers are, indeed, adamant that to deter smokers from carrying on with their habit via whatever brand they can afford, all brands need to be set at a similarly high price, whether a premium brand or a roll-up one. One of the study’s authors, Dr Rosemary Hiscock of the University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group, explained the thinking behind this rationale when interviewed by The Guardian newspaper in late July: “Our research suggests that tobacco companies are able to meet tax requirements and keep cheap products available by markedly increasing prices on premium brands”. Which, let’s be honest, is even more damning; big tobacco once again is tipping the scales in its favour to keep consumers buying its hugely harmful products.
Indeed, the study’s lead author, Dr Timea Partos of the Addictions Department at King’s College London, spelt out what she and her colleagues believe needs to be done (again to The Guardian): “Increasing tobacco prices is known to be one of the best deterrents to reduce smoking, but an increase in availability of cheaper products in conventional stores in response to this appears to be thwarting public health campaigns … Policy-makers need to focus on regulating tobacco prices so that the tobacco industry is not able to undermine tax increases by offering such a wide range of cigarette prices”.
But is that the only answer? Well, no – surely vaping can be allowed, through as favourable legislation for outlets selling e-cigs and assorted paraphrenia (that is, the typical UK e-cig store, online or offline) and stronger public backing (not least from influential sources), to play as big a role as possible in trying to wean smokers off tobacco. With this in addition to across-the-board higher combustible tobacco prices, isn’t there a good chance the hold of conventional cigarettes on millions of people up and down the country might genuinely be broken…?