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Take an afternoon stroll in London and you will notice 3 things in people’s hands- smartphones, pints and increasingly- vapour devices. Repeating the same exercise in another European capital, Sofia, only the first remains. While the smartphone revolution, with its advantages and disadvantages, has already taken the world by storm, vaping is still only mainstream in a handful of countries. However, the tobacco industry’s transformation towards potentially reduced-risk products could have a “smartphone effect” on over 1 billion smokers globally. Euromonitor International’s data show that vapour will be a US$34 billion business by 2021, a 176% increase from 2016.
The UK is at the forefront of this revolution. According to our latest estimates, out of the 9 million smokers in the UK about a third are vaping. Public Health England, the executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care, has been an active proponent of vapour devices. It has provided evidence suggesting that vaping is associated with improved quit rates and accelerated drops in smoking prevalence. The agency also claimed that: “Many thousands of smokers incorrectly believe that vaping is as harmful as smoking; around 40% of smokers have not even tried an e-cigarette”. In the UK, where comprehensive measures, including steep tax hikes leading to decreased cigarette affordability, to reduce smoking prevalence have caused significant declines in the last decade, the risk reduction argument is now firmly in the spotlight. In other words, UK smokers are proactively driven into vaping.
Going back to Bulgaria, where cigarette affordability is actually increasing, the reduced-risk debate is all but non-existent. Local authorities have other priorities, while people’s main concerns, especially for the older generation, are seemingly unrelated to healthy living. Also, the guilt factor connected to smoking, which is very obvious in the UK, is not present in the country either.
At 32%, Bulgaria’s smoking prevalence is the seventh highest in the world. Within the Central and Eastern European region it is lower only than Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Russia, Macedonia and Serbia. While up to now the industry’s focus has been entirely on combustible cigarettes, such smoking rates naturally turn vapour into the straightforward future option. During a recent two week stay in Sofia, I only met two vapers. They were using the heated tobacco product- IQOS, which was introduced in late 2017. To my surprise, when I questioned them about it, risk-reduction was not the main motivation behind the purchase. It was a trendy choice. In other words, they were passively attracted to the category. What is more, as illustrated by the recent European Commission’s Eurobarometer report, Bulgarians are the most agnostic about the relative (lack of) harm from e-cigarettes.
The high prevalence rates in Eastern Europe can turn the region into the proving ground for vapour. In the light of this, it is clear that more needs to be done from all industry stakeholders. I believe tobacco companies will in time shift their main focus to non-combustible products. Yet, this is not currently happening evenly around the world. Then too, this shift cannot be solely industry-driven. Governments and health authorities also have to take their share of responsibility.
Vaping will shape the future of the tobacco industry. However, to what extent it is the golden thread that unites all interests across times and places, remains to be seen.