Brexit Cigarettes

The abandonment of the ashtray

A cigarette sits on the pavement as if it was still being smoked. The table-bound ashtray in which negotiators were supposed to butt their heads together now seems pointless. Nothing seems to have a home anymore. Nothing is detailed enough. So, let’s try for details. Let’s try for how one thing might change. This will be ashen, by the way.

In July, Silicon Valley’s Juul launched its new e-cigarette in Britain. After years of public health campaigns and VAT rises, there are now many opportunities for companies to promote their smoking alternatives. Frontier Economics forecasts the percentage of people who smoke in Britain to fall to 5% by 2040, but with government plans to fund more NHS Spot Smoking services, 2040 is a conservative estimate. But what effect will Brexit have on how quickly Britain moves from hacking tobacco to puffing vapor?

The UK government’s Tobacco Control Plan ensures the continuous protection of the nation’s health outside the EU while also looking to identify where EU regulations might be changed. For example, leaving the EU could see a return to duty-free sales. Ever since duty-free sales of tobacco were banned on flights between EU member states in 1999, UK travelers have been able to bring back as many tobacco products into the country as they wish (and without paying extra, because VAT and duty has come to be included in the price of goods). A post-Brexit return to a small duty-free allowance has been suggested – of 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars, and 250g of tobacco – which would be comparable to travel regulations between non-EU member states. Another possible Brexit change could be a price hike on cigarette packs. According to the OECD, under WTO rules Britain leaving the EU would mean tariffs of at least 70% on tobacco, meaning that the average price of a packet of cigarettes could rise from £9.60 to £12.74.

If changes such as these come to pass, then tobacco replacement, which already has an attractive consumer-base, will become even more vital for tobacco companies to survive. Tobacco companies are already starting to align with this booming market by re-branding themselves as the smoking alternative. Philip Morris say they aim to stamp out smoking by stopping the sale of their cigarettes in the UK by the 2030s with a view to “designing a smoke-free future”, and Marlboro, Chesterfield and L&M are among the other brands that say they will be pulling their products from the shelves in corner supermarkets across the UK. But while the tobacco industry might be sincere in their efforts towards tobacco-harm reduction, the pitfalls of trusting the tobacco industry with public health are clear and obvious. Last month, it was revealed that British American Tobacco used its e-cigarette contract with Birmingham city council to suggest a partnership with the public sector and thereby mislead local authorities into doing business. Steve Brine, the minister for health, said in response: “Stop-smoking services exist to save lives – it is a disgrace that British American Tobacco is seeking to exploit them for its own profit. I am committed to working towards a smoke-free generation –  and councils play a vital role in this – but we have a duty to protect our public health services from the commercial interests of the tobacco industry.”

The British parliament’s science and technology committee say that conventional cigarettes are 95 percent more harmful than e-cigarettes. However, there is still much debate as to the long-term health risks of e-cigarettes, and the tobacco industry is not the most trustworthy champion when it comes to public health. While Brexit might present opportunities for elected representatives to change the way Britain smokes for the better, e-cigarettes are likely to be only one part of the solution. Traditional anti-smoking legislation, such as the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive which paved the way for the standardization of cigarette packaging, must not be flicked through our half-open windows and onto the roadside in the process.

In one of my less ethical but better moments, I recently told someone, someone who it turns out might be more than good enough, that if we were ever together I would slap the cigarettes out of her mouth if she did not look as beautiful as she otherwise would be. In other words, I’m not sure how I feel about a totally smokeless society. It might be slightly too sterile.

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