It’s not long to go until the government’s self-set deadline for England to be smoke-free. It was 2019 when politicians announced their ambition for adult smoking prevalence to fall to 5% or less by 2030, promising more measures and money to make it a reality. But a recent Cancer Research UK report expects the target not to be met until 2039.

While smoking rates are in decline (the latest ONS adult smoking rate in the UK is the lowest on record, at 13.3%) its analysis states they need to drop around 70% faster.

And with an ASH survey published last month finding 49% of adults in England think the government is not doing enough to address smoking, politicians are under pressure to act.

Their latest bid: cigarette pack inserts, with an open consultation launched this week. But will the move make any difference? And could it prove a major opportunity for vaping?

A 2016 online survey found around half of young adult smokers in the UK would bother reading a pack insert, with a similar proportion saying it would make them think more about quitting.

The vaping sector and tobacco giants

But looking to countries that have already introduced the measure – like Canada – it appears less effective in reality. An evaluation of the policy found around a quarter of smokers read the inserts, though those who did frequently were “more likely to make a quit attempt”. The government is aware of this, saying it expects “16% of smokers to read the inserts and an increased odds ratio of 1.46 for people who read inserts making a quit attempt”.

In any case, the move was not enough for the Canadian government, which this month introduced Health warnings on individual cigarettes, printed next to the filter. Notably, Canada’s own smoke-free target is five years after England’s, and it has a lower present smoking rate (10%).

Judging by the parameters set out in the consultation, it seems likely any inserts would carry standardised, government authored, “positive quit themed” messaging.

The vaping sector and the tobacco giants, which now have their own combustible cigarette electronic alternatives, are eager the inserts will be allowed to provide a push to their products.

“The government may wish to give further consideration to the role [inserts] could play in encouraging smokers to switch from conventional cigarettes or highlighting the harm reduction benefits of vaping,” says UK Vaping Industry Association director general John Dunne.

Vaping is booming, but there is growing “misperception” – as the UKVIA put it – that vaping is just as or more harmful than smoking. Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has put the case succinctly: “The key points about vaping (e-cigarettes) can be easily summarised. If you smoke, vaping is much safer; if you don’t smoke, don’t vape.” Yet, according to a Smoore UK consumer survey, 62% believe that vaping is just as, or more harmful than, smoking.

Inserts could be high-impact

In 2023, more than a quarter of adult smokers have never tried vaping to help them quit smoking, according to ASH, though it is one of the most effective quitting aids.

“It is vital smokers are given the facts to allow them to make informed decisions to switch to a significantly less harmful alternative to cigarettes,” Dunne said.

Inserts could be a high-impact platform for this message (the UKVIA wants more, including “a series of approved switching messages that vaping brands could use on TV, radio and national print media”).

The government will need considerable convincing. With rising youth use, a booming black market for illicit over strength devices and compliance issues, vaping is fast becoming a bogeyman.

But if pack inserts become easy-to-ignore harm slogans, rather than a practical nudge in the right direction for tobacco users, that 2030 goal could go up in smoke.