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Tackling tobacco use on all fronts

by Chris Woodhall | Analysis

6 March 2015

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We all know smoking is terrible for your health. Tobacco is the biggest preventable cause of cancer worldwide. And last week our new statistics showed that, if we don’t do more to get smoking rates down, then half a million children in the UK will grow up to be another cancer mortality statistic.

So when it comes to getting smoking under control we need to come at the problem from all angles. It’s not just about standardised packaging – an important policy we’ve been campaigning on for some time. It’s also about making sure we protect children from any other means the tobacco industry has to market its products, and – just as importantly – helping smokers quit.

Over the last few years, there have been a few changes on both fronts around the country: tobacco products are slowly being put out of sight in shops across the UK. And in England, responsibility for public health – including Stop Smoking Services – has been handed over to local authorities.

Two new reports, published this week, have looked at both these issues – here’s a quick digest of what they found.

Out of sight, out of mind

Those discounted chocolate bars next to the till in your local shop can be very tempting. Their positioning is no accident and the same is true of cigarettes.

Almost three years ago – after another lengthy campaign – the Government brought in laws to remove ‘Power Walls’ of cigarette packs behind shop tills – also known as ‘point of sale displays’.

First they were taken out of supermarkets and other large shops. But small shops – where the majority of smokers buy their cigarettes – were given extra time to prepare for the removal of these promotional displays.

But one month from today, on 6 April, small retailers will also be required to remove their point of sale displays. New polling we’ve released today shows the public support for these plans: three out of four (75 per cent) people support putting tobacco marketing in UK shops out of sight. An even higher 79 per cent of people support continued government action to reduce the number of young people who start smoking.

But what do retailers think about all this?

We commissioned a team of researchers from King’s College London – led by tobacco addiction expert Professor Ann McNeill – to find out how they were preparing for the change.

They interviewed shopkeepers across London and Newcastle and found that the majority of shopkeepers did not oppose removing point of sale displays.

The team also explored retailer attitudes to tobacco sales, with some eye-opening findings.

More than nine in every 10 retailers (94 per cent) said they made little profit on tobacco products.

In contrast, tobacco companies make about £30 billion in profits each year globally: that adds up to about £6,000 profit per death from smoking.

The researchers also found that 40 per cent of retailers wanted to reduce their reliance on selling tobacco products.

“We should explore how best to support retailers in diversifying away from tobacco,” commented Prof McNeill.

This report, and the accompanying poll, demonstrates that new ways of protecting children from exposure to tobacco marketing have clear public support and can be delivered without harming businesses – an argument the tobacco industry wheels out in opposition of changes to displays in shops.

But it’s not all about prevention. Another crucial aspect of tobacco control is helping smokers kick the habit.

Warning Signs

In April 2013, there was a shift in public health decision-making power in England. Decisions that were previously made by the NHS are now being looked after by local authorities. We commissioned a report by Action on Smoking & Health to look at the impact these changes were having.

There’s good news: the report found that more than half (59 per cent) of those in charge of tobacco control locally felt the gains and opportunities from the transition outweighed the losses and challenges.

And nearly two out three reported that those looking after health and wellbeing in the area were actively pushing for tobacco control.

So, based on this report, it appears that changing who makes the calls on tobacco control locally is having a positive effect.

But it’s still early days and the report also unearthed some areas of concern in a significant number of authorities.

Only seven in 10 of those in charge had an active tobacco control plan and almost 10 per cent of the tobacco control teams had had their budget cut.

This last point is of particular concern. Although the number is relatively low, public health budgets are protected to some extent by a ring-fence, which means spending on Stop Smoking Services should be maintained.

So even a minority experiencing cuts is a real issue.

In a separate example, the Stop Smoking Service in Cumbria could not be “extended in its current form” because no-one submitted a tender for the contract.

Looking to future years as the transition takes hold, the impact on tobacco control funding needs to be closely scrutinised as it could have major ramifications on local Stop Smoking Services.

Into the Future

Whether it’s removing the last remaining means of tobacco advertising, or delivering the services that help smokers to quit, we must ensure that high quality research that produces robust evidence is the way to reduce the burden of tobacco.

And reports such as these play a vital role in building this evidence, ensuring the UK has a comprehensive tobacco control strategy.

And this will help reduce the damage done by the UK’s leading cause of preventable death: tobacco.

Chris Woodhall is a senior tobacco control officer at Cancer Research UK