Are novel nicotine products a ‘huge distraction’ from the real problem?

We’re very used to hearing, from the defenders of new nicotine products, the argument that while vaping has clearly increased among young people it’s also contributed to an equally clear decline in their smoking of combustibles. The discussion is usually in the specific context of US schoolkids, but it applies in other countries too.

That, however, is not the only way in which focusing on the downsides of novel products is disguising the reality of nicotine consumption among the young, according to US public health scholar Jeffrey Drope. He is lead editor and author of the latest edition of the Tobacco Atlas as well as research professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago (the Atlas is a joint project of the international Tobacconomics group, based at the university, and the public health non-profit Vital Strategies).

Speaking today at the launch of the seventh edition of the Atlas, Drope suggested that new nicotine technologies are “a huge distraction” which have “confused governments, the public health community and the public”.

Drope is certainly not an ardent advocate of vapour, heated tobacco and the like – he suggested that the ideal regulatory approach was to “keep very, very narrow channels open for those that we think these products might be helpful for”, and he urged looking at regulatory approaches ranging from the UK’s liberal regime to Australia’s near-complete ban.

His point, rather, was that if we think on a global level rather than in terms of a single developed market, the picture of youth smoking is not quite so positive.

Adolescent use of combustible cigarettes is increasing in many countries, notably in emerging markets with young populations and limited regulation, and worryingly among girls as well as boys (perhaps because of girls’ greater use of social media, another speaker suggested). And, while overall global smoking has decreased in the last decades, that is “not written in stone”.

From this perspective, focusing the regulatory and public health discussion on novel products is simply missing the point. They might bring incremental benefits or losses, but the big challenge globally – though not, of course, in every individual country – is still to reduce uptake of combustibles.

 Barnaby Page TobaccoIntelligence staff

Photo: Artem Xromov

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