Last week’s business headlines were dominated by a spectacular tumble in the stock market value of the world’s leading tobacco companies. Shares in BAT, Imperial Brands and Altria, the US owner of Marlboro, all fell 6 per cent on their respective exchanges.
The cause was an announcement by President Biden that he intends to force tobacco companies to cut nicotine content in cigarettes to non-addictive levels. In one stroke he knocked almost £6 billion off the combined value of Britain’s biggest cigarette makers. The FTSE experienced its biggest daily fall in a year.
Such is the global economy. You might very fairly conclude that this is good news: few would mourn the financial woes of nicotine merchants.
But, as is so often the case with Big Government and Public Health, a seemingly virtuous act conceals a more nuanced and complex reality. The truth is that our public health professionals would do us more good if they focussed on simple, preventative measures, rather than punitive ones that, perversely, risk doing us more harm than good.
The tobacco control industry has given us the perfect illustration of this in recent years. Confronted with a new technology that was luring smokers away from smoking and thereby reducing harm, one half of public health, including the World Health Organisation, did everything it could to ban the product from the market because total safety couldn’t be guaranteed. It was like banning life jackets for fear of chafing. I refer, of course, to the e-cigarette.
The fact of the matter is, in areas from tobacco and pandemic control, to obesity and dental care, an overly zealous application of the ‘precautionary principle’ is stifling innovation and causing worse health outcomes and higher morbidity. A stifling culture of safetyism prevails. It would be less of a concern if it wan’t so deadly.
You need only consider vaccines. The acute risk aversion of EU policy makers justified the banning of vaccines in the midst of a pandemic. Commission officials were prepared to let many die of a deadly virus rather than risk a few dying from the unlikely side effects of vaccines already proven to be safe elsewhere.
And it’s not just the EU at fault. By withholding the AstraZeneca vaccine from the under 30s, the UK MHRA has shown itself to be equally risk-averse.
This tendency at the European level is well documented — a disproportionately strong interpretation of the precautionary principle prioritises the potential for risk over demonstrable benefits. This is what has caused it to ban glyphosate herbicides on grounds of risk, when its benefits and relative safety had been proven by respected health authorities around the world.
In the same vein, the EU is poised to target vaping as part of its Beating Cancer Plan when the science points in the opposite direction, to an effective smoking replacement technology that is orders of magnitude safer than smoking. Sadly, the act of banning the alternative pushes nicotine users back to the old technology. One wonders whether the same will happen in response to President Biden’s latest intervention.
The hope is that, post Brexit, the UK can begin to diverge from regulatory approaches that hold back innovation and do harm instead of helping. The opportunities are certainly there in the fields of agriculture, environment, nicotine, even financial services and oral health.
Take the area of preventative dental care. President elect of the British Dental Association, Professor Liz Kay, has written about the strains that Covid is placing on dental services and the need for a system shift towards preventative measures. The main preventative measures are well known to all of us — brushing and flossing. To this she added a further, simple act that public health officials could quickly embrace — chewing sugar-free gum, which cleans the mouth and promotes the flow of saliva with all its miraculous antiviral properties.
The list of the wider health benefits linked to a healthy oral biome is quite staggering, including the prevention of heart disease, diabetes and periodontitis, and cutting healing time for women post cesarian, eclampsia and pre-eclampsia. New research in the Journal of Oral Medicine and Dental Research reported in The Times this week even points to a link with severe Covid infection: scientists think coronavirus may spread into the bloodstream through infected gums, which could explain why those with worse oral hygiene are more susceptible to severe disease.
But will UK public health officials embrace such a simple, common sense, low tech health hack as chewing gum? As Professor Kay has highlighted, they have the opportunity to in the Government’s current Green Paper on public and dental health. The potential cost savings for the NHS are massive. A US study found that Europe and the US could achieve combined savings of US$3 billion in dental costs per year if all chewers increased their consumption of sugar-free gum by just one piece per day.
It is the same question that confronts us post-Brexit. Will UK officials take the opportunity to think differently? As many commentators have pointed out, the best argument against Brexit was the one that was never made: that a UK Government under either Labour or the Conservatives is unlikely ever to make best use out of the opportunity for regulatory divergence.
We can only watch and hope.