In a world-first scheme of its kind, smokers in England are being urged to swap cigarettes for vapes, with pregnant women being offered financial incentives to help them quit, as part of an effort to cut smoking rates and improve the nation's health.
The scheme is part of a series of new measures to help the Government meet its ambition of being smoke free by 2030 – reducing smoking rates to 5% or less.
In 2021, smoking prevalence in England was 13% – the lowest on record. However, 5.4 million people in England still smoke tobacco, which remains the "single biggest cause of preventable illness and death", emphasised a spokesperson from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
Up to 2 in 3 lifelong smokers will die from smoking, according to DHSC estimates, and recent data showed 1 in 4 deaths from all cancers were estimated to be from smoking. For those who quit, the risk of heart attack is halved after 1 year of quitting.
"Cutting smoking rates reduces the number of smoking-related illnesses needing to be treated, in turn reducing the pressure on the NHS," explained the spokesperson.
Smokers to be Given a Vape Starter Kit
Launching the scheme, Health Minister Neil O'Brien puffed that "cigarettes are the only product on sale which will kill you if used correctly".
As part of the "pioneering" national 'swap to stop' scheme, one million smokers –almost 1 in 5 of all smokers in England – will be provided with a vape starter kit along with behavioural support to help them quit the habit.
Later this year, local authorities will be invited to take part in the campaign, and each will design a scheme that "suits its needs", including deciding which populations to prioritise, explained the DHSC spokesperson.
"We will work with councils and others to offer a million smokers across England a free vaping starter kit," Mr O’Brien said during his speech today at Policy Exchange.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, said that vapes increase a smoker's chances of successfully quitting and welcomed the scheme as a step in the "right direction". However, she alluded that the steps being taken were "nowhere near sufficient", and highlighted that the strategy recommended by last year's Government-commissioned Khan report required £125 million in funding a year, "many times more than the current announcements", she said.
Incentives More Than Double the Odds of Pregnant Women Quitting
By the end of next year, all pregnant women who smoke will be offered financial incentives to help them stop smoking, the DHSC announced. This will involve offering vouchers, alongside behavioural support.
Supporting more women to have a smoke-free pregnancy will reduce the number of babies born underweight or underdeveloped with health problems requiring neonatal and ongoing care, the agency said. "It will also reduce the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth."
Dr Clea Harmer, chief executive of Sands and co-chair of the Smoking in Pregnancy Challenge Group, said that it was "great" to see more support to help pregnant women quit smoking. "Incentives during pregnancy will save babies' lives and ease the financial burden on families in some of the most deprived parts of the country," she highlighted.
"Every baby deserves a smoke free start in life and financial incentives will go a long way towards achieving this goal," she commented.
Professor Linda Bauld, director of the SPECTRUM Research Consortium and co-chair of the Smoking in Pregnancy Challenge Group welcomed the Government's commitment to introduce financial incentives to support more pregnant women to quit smoking.
"Incentives more than double the odds of women quitting during pregnancy, protecting babies from exposure to potentially deadly chemicals like carbon monoxide," she pointed out.
Combatting Youth Vaping
Last week, the DHSC announced a "crackdown" on illicit vape sales as part of a package of measures to stop children and non-smokers take up the habit, which it warned was "growing in popularity among young people".
Health Minister Neil O'Brien said that while vaping is a "preferable alternative" to smoking for adults, he was concerned about the rise in youth vaping.
"There has been a very sharp increase in children vaping – particularly disposable vapes," he said.
NHS figures for 2021 showed that 9% of 11- to 15-year-old children used e-cigarettes, up from 6% in 2018.
"That’s a rapidly rising trend we need to stop," Mr O'Brien said. He warned businesses involved in the vape industry: "If your business plan relies on getting kids hooked on nicotine, we are coming for you."
Within the package of "bold" new measures to combat rising levels of youth vaping was the creation of a new 'illicit vapes enforcement squad' to enforce the rules on vaping and tackle illicit vapes and underage sales, and a call for evidence to identify opportunities to stop children vaping.