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It’s too late for my Dad, but the Government must now commit to a tobacco-free future for the next generation

Alice Wiseman headshot
by Alice Wiseman | Opinion

30 June 2023

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4 cigarettes in a pile

Alice Wiseman, Director of Public Health for Gateshead and Association of Directors of Public Health Board Member, is one of many health experts across the UK helping to inform our upcoming Manifesto for Cancer Research and Care - an actionable set of policies aiming to transform cancer care in this country.

Over the last 50 years, nearly eight million people have died from smoking in the UK.

With such large numbers it’s all too easy to lose sight of the human cost. However, behind every statistic is a person, each with a family and friends.

My amazing Dad is one of those eight million. He started smoking as a teenager back in the 1950s, groomed by a profit-hungry industry and died aged just 54.

Every time someone dies because of smoking, the tobacco industry loses a customer. Therefore, to maintain their profits, tobacco firms need to recruit more.

So, backed by billions of pounds and extensive research, the industry deploys a raft of clever marketing tactics to keep their sales figures high.

These tactics can be very targeted, often at children and young people.

As well as spending millions on enticing consumers, the industry has spent equally large sums denying the evidence proving the link between smoking and cancer.

Even as late as the 1990’s the industry was shown to be trying to undermine the scientific consensus.

Meanwhile, leaked internal documents have exposed Big Tobacco’s long history of using front groups, often with hidden links to the tobacco industry, to influence and slow the progress of tobacco control policy. Measures like smokefree places, display bans and plain packaging.

There is however hope. Tobacco control has progressed, and we’ve seen a refocus on the actions needed to eradicate smoking over recent years, most recently with the Khan review: Making Smoking Obsolete.

We know what we need to do, we have significant public support, so we now just need to do it.

To stamp out smoking for good, and thereby save millions of lives, we need the Government to commit to measures that we know will work.

We need to raise the age of sale by one year, every year, until there is no one left who can buy tobacco.

We also need a licensing system for retailers which helps reduce availability, as well as take action, on settings that are selling cigarettes to children.

We know too that mass media campaigns to promote a smokefree culture will encourage smokers to quit.

We need to recognise that it isn’t easy to quit and provide easily accessible, high-quality support.

Vapes are an important tool to help adult smokers to quit, however we need to protect young people from aggressive marketing and promotion of vapes.

Vapes are not totally risk-free, but the alternative is far worse.

Directors of Public Health, like me, and our teams throughout the UK are doing these things and making a difference.

Smoking rates are coming down and fewer people are dying. However, in order to build on this progress, we need consistent and adequate funding and a commitment from Government to continue investing in prevention.

Substantial policy change and sustainable funding is needed but, if the Government can’t find the necessary funding, then a tax or levy on the industry in the form of a Smokefree Fund could also be considered to help meet the nation’s smokefree ambition.

Smoking costs the NHS billions (2.4 billion a year to be precise) so we need to ensure smokers are offered advice and support to quit.

As well as improving health for individuals this investment will save the country billions in the long term through decreased health spending and an increase in the productivity of working age smokers who will no longer be suffering from tobacco-related, preventable illness.

For me there is no question that we can, and should, do more and public opinion shows I am far from alone. A survey in 2021 found that four out of every five adults in England think the Government could do more and support activities to limit smoking.

This is just one of the reasons why Cancer Research UK’s upcoming Manifesto for Cancer Research and Care will include a focus on prevention and a tobacco-free future.

CRUK is currently developing a set of actionable policy recommendations that have the potential to transform cancer outcomes for people across the UK. And as the biggest avoidable risk factor for cancer, tackling smoking will be at the heart of this.

My dad only met one of his grandchildren and didn’t live to see any of his four children marry.

I cannot begin to describe the impact on me and my family of losing my dad and know that there are so many similar stories.

However, it doesn’t need to be like this – we can choose to put an end to this entirely preventable suffering, save lives and boost the economy by working together and bringing about change.

Alice Wiseman headshot

Alice Wiseman

Alice Wiseman is Director of Public Health for Gateshead and Association of Directors of Public Health Board Member.