23 November 2023

Big in Japan – why we should look to the Pacific for sound tobacco policy

By Michael Landl

The United Kingdom has made great strides toward reducing smoking among its population. As of today, the country can proudly present its lowest smoking rates ever. These achievements aren’t accidental, they are the result of highly strategic and progressive harm reduction policies. Yet the UK may be taking a troubling detour from this progress. The government’s ongoing review of vaping and tobacco policies threatens to reverse the gains made.

First on the docket is vaping. Vape flavours, which many ex-smokers cite as a key reason they switched from smoking, are on the brink of stringent restrictions. For those unfamiliar with the journey of a smoker trying to quit, flavour might seem like a frivolous concern. However, it’s pivotal. Flavours offer a sensory appeal that moves users away from the taste of cigarettes. By potentially limiting these, we risk taking away a significant motivator for smokers to switch.

Additionally, the convenience of disposable vapes, which has been a gateway for many smokers to try vaping, is under threat. The ban on disposable vapes overlooks the broader picture – every smoker who switches is a win for public health.

But most puzzling is the proposal to introduce a generational smoking ban. While the idea of preventing any child turning 14 this year from ever legally purchasing cigarettes might sound bold and visionary on the surface, it has a concerning addendum. The ban also extends to heat-not-burn products. The UK’s full embrace of a utopian ideal when it comes to smoking could risk its entire goal of reducing smoking.

On the other side of the world, different approaches have been made that provide a worthwhile case study on the potential of leveraging heat-not-burn products for smokers. Consider Japan. In the past seven years, Japan has witnessed a seismic shift in its smoking landscape. The number of cigarettes smoked has dropped by over 50%.

To put that into perspective, the total cigarette market in Japan for the first nine months of 2023 stood at 69.4 billion cigarettes, down from 144.8 billion in the same period in 2016. This dramatic decline is no small feat for a country once known for its deeply ingrained smoking culture.

What drove this change? The widespread adoption of heat-not-burn products. These products, which heat tobacco instead of burning it, provide smokers with the sensation and ritual of smoking but with a significantly reduced harm profile. Japan’s experience underscores the importance of a full spectrum of harm reduction tools. By embracing heat-not-burn products, they’ve halved smoking rates in less than a decade.

Returning to the UK’s stance, it’s clear that banning these products would be a missed opportunity of significant proportions. While vaping remains a crucial tool in the harm reduction arsenal, the Japan example shows that heat-not-burn products have a role to play in achieving our smoke-free ambitions.

The path forward should not be that of bans and onerous restrictions, but one of understanding and diversion. The UK’s mission should be to provide smokers with every available tool to quit. From vaping and nicotine pouches to heat-not-burn products, the emphasis should be on harm reduction. Every smoker is different, and a one-size-fits-all approach is impractical and counterproductive.

As the UK government contemplates its next steps, it should draw inspiration from Japan’s success story. Rather than putting up roadblocks, we should be widening the harm reduction highway. Embracing a full spectrum of safer alternatives, refraining from unnecessary restrictions, and endorsing harm reduction wholeheartedly is not just a policy decision – it’s a commitment to public health.

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Michael Landl is Director of the World Vapers' Alliance.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.