75,000 people die from smoking related diseases each year in the UK

That figure is too high, of course, but significantly fewer people now die from this killer habit compared to over half a century ago.

The fact that millions in this country have quit is a remarkable public health achievement, but we should not forget how we got here, and what more there is to do.

The crusade against cigarettes, and success in reducing smoking, is largely attributed to a mix of public health campaigns, regulation, and, significantly in more recent times, smokers switching to safer alternatives such as vapes, heat-not-burn, and other nicotine products such as pouches.

ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) figures suggest that the primary reason people vape is to quit smoking. It is why vaping use has surged over the last decade, contributing to the smoking rate falling from 21 per cent in 2013 to under 13 per cent today.

Findings by Public Health England (now the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities) show that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than smoking, which is why the UK Government has wholeheartedly embraced vaping to achieve its smokefree goal for England by 2030: an approach which is pragmatic, evidence-based, and world leading.

It is therefore bizarre to see that the World Health Organization (WHO) is poised to push its anti-vaping agenda at the tenth conference of its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) – COP10 – in Panama next month. Despite the science being clear – that the use of smoking alternatives saves lives – the WHO is ignoring it and calling for countries to sign up to tighter regulations that could threaten the widespread use of harm reduction products by billions of smokers wanting to quit.

The WHO must look at the evidence. New Zealand’s decision to legalise vaping resulted in a 33% reduction in adult smoking in just two years, while Australia experienced a 4.5% increase in smoking after banning so called “recreational vaping”.

In my own constituency of Northampton South, we have had high levels of smoking historically, but we are seeing marked reductions now because smokers wanting to quit have had access to a range of tools – including vapes and other similar devices, such as heat-not-burn.

Across Northamptonshire, many people are living longer, happier, and healthier lives because reduced-risk products have enabled them to quit smoking. My friend and constituency neighbour, Andrea Leadsom, our new Minister for Primary Care and Public Health, will no doubt be pleased by this too. It would be morally wrong to prevent other smokers from making similar positive choices for their own health, or worse, force them back to conventional combustible cigarettes.

That is why – last week in Parliament – I held a Westminster Hall debate on COP10 and the UK Government’s approach in Panama, with cross-party support from colleagues on both sides of the House. The best must not be the enemy of the good, and we must ensure that here in the UK we continue to follow an evidence-based and science-led approach to helping people to quit smoking, including through the use of as wide a range of reduced-risk smoking cessation products as possible.

As I did during the debate, I urge the Department of Health and Social Care to remove heat-not-burn from the upcoming proposals for a generational tobacco ban, and I urge the Minister’s officials to hold their nerve at COP10 in February by standing up for our world leading approach in the face of supranational interference.

The WHO wants countries to regulate reduced-risk products in exactly the same way as combustible tobacco. They also propose to extend the tobacco advertising and promotion ban to these products when there is a clear need to communicate the health benefits of switching to less harmful alternatives.

We already live in a world of disinformation and fake news. It is the duty of the Government – and us as politicians – to be straight with the British people. Instead of successfully educating smokers on the health benefits of switching, the WHO’s proposals will only fuel the dangerous myth that vaping is as harmful as smoking – something that 40 per cent of smokers already believe.

Despite these challenges, COP10 offers opportunities but only if the UK delegation seizes them. We have some of the best scientific experts in the world, and our delegation – led by our Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy – must push to be included in the WHO’s myriad of Expert and Working Groups so they can present credible scientific evidence in support of reduced-risk products.

Our delegation must also push for any decision taken at the WHO to be made with openness and transparency. COP10 in Panama is due to meet behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny and to the exclusion of the world’s media. Compare that to COP26 – the UN climate change summit held in Glasgow in 2021 – where scientists, consumers, the media, and industry were all invited to take part.

I was glad that the Minister gave her commitment last week that the UK delegation would be bound by common sense, proudly setting out our unique and sovereign approach to tobacco harm reduction. However, as pointed out in the course of the debate, the risk remains that the WHO may well push for what is currently advisory to become mandatory, and the UK may increasingly find itself as a lone voice at the table pressing back against this. It is crucial that we maintain our democratic principles in the face of the WHO’s natural instinct toward overreach and the expansion of its powers, and I look forward to her returning to the House to give a statement on the outcomes of COP10 as soon as possible.

As one of the largest financial contributors to the FCTC, we must use our leverage to not only stand up for UK interests, but for the more than one billion smokers worldwide who need to quit.

None of this should be confused with efforts to stop young people from taking up vaping or seek in any way to dismiss the concerns many parents have about their children doing so. Laws against this already exist and I would argue enforcing said laws – notably via Trading Standards, with the necessary funding – rather than just creating more is the best course of action here. Law making should assist law enforcement, not be a substitute for it.

Looking after children’s health is important, but children benefit from having their parents and grandparents in their lives; thousands more children now have that time, love, and attention as a result of the adults in their lives stopping smoking via vaping.

Many of these adult former smokers have stopped to save money, many use flavours and, yes, that includes people in their 40s, 50s and beyond. I have noticed that every article on this subject attracts vociferous but often contradictory opinions. Facts can sometimes be hard to come by and unpopularity risked by citing some of them, but I genuinely believe that to do otherwise could put some of our citizens’ lives at risk.

Andrew Lewer MP

Andrew Lewer is the Conservative MP for Northampton South, and was elected in 2017.