​​​Adult smokers deserve access to smoke-free products—even during tough times​​​​​​

25 APR 2023

​​​W​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​idespread economic and geopolitical instability ​is causing ​​​rising inflation and a squeeze on people’s living standards​.​​

​​This economic pressure ​​has​​​ become a concern for consumers, governments, and businesses alike​,​​​​ and ​may also create obstacles for adult smokers who don’t quit to switch to less harmful alternatives, such as smoke-free products. At times of economic downturn, falling back to illicit trade is an ever-present reality.

The prevalence of illicit tobacco products poses a significant ​threat​​​ ​to​​​ efforts to reduce smoking rates, particularly among consumers in the lower socioeconomic strata​,​ who have limited resources. These individuals are often the most vulnerable and at the greatest risk of exposure to illicit tobacco products. With​ a​ lack of access to accurate and appropriate information about better products, ​​millions of adult smokers ​are right now​​​​​ ​at risk of being ​tempted to ​turn to​​​ the black market, ​which would ​​​​​undermine​​ public health policies across the globe​​.

Turning to the black market

The purchasing power of adult smokers is on the decline, due to a variety of economic challenges. The affordability of legitimate products is being hit by inflation and economic instability. This is also compounded by the challenge of legitimate products widely varying in price​​ ​across​​​ different markets​,​ depending on taxation ​policies.​​​

This difficult economic environment mostly affects lower-income smokers. Millions of disadvantaged adult smokers who don’t quit are therefore likely to turn to the black market instead of opting for better, science-backed alternatives to continued smoking.

Furthermore, adult smokers may be inadvertently funding a trade that only benefits criminals and has negative effects on consumers, governments, legitimate businesses, and society as a whole. The black market’s proceeds only help fund other serious crimes. These can include money laundering, corruption, and even such serious offences as human trafficking and transnational organized crime.

Diminishing public funds

One of the most significant effects of illicit trade is the substantial loss of tax revenue. This issue has become even more pressing as governments and central banks around the world grapple with the prospect of a widespread economic recession.

The inability for governments to collect those funds results in a wide-ranging set of negative consequences that affect all of society. Diverting tax revenue away from the government and toward the black-market results in a lack of investment in areas including public services and public health—further hurting society.

Not only that, but the trade in illicit tobacco may impact government budgets—through loss of taxes and duties—​and subsequent funding ​allocated to public health measures to reduce smoking. This, in turn, puts more strain on already limited resources, and ultimately compromises ​the​​​ ability to improve health outcomes through tobacco harm reduction policies.

The role of innovation

The need for a multi-pronged approach to achieve a smoke-free future cannot be overstated. It must leverage the latest innovations and technological breakthroughs.

Banning either the commercialization of better alternatives to combustible tobacco products or failing to allow for them to be priced more competitively than cigarettes is clearly counterproductive. The result may be that adult smokers facing financial pressure will increasingly rely on illegal products, which will only perpetuate the growth of a global black market in contraband and counterfeit cigarettes.

We need to prioritize the development and commercialization of less harmful, science-backed alternatives to traditional tobacco products. And in the current economic climate, it is equally important to ensure that they are accessible and affordable for all adult consumers.

A comprehensive regulatory framework is needed​, which​​​​ ​supports the commercialization of smoke-free products and ensures that they are available and affordable​ to adult smokers​. Such a framework must guard against initiation, and ensure appropriate quality and safety requirements first and foremost. But it must also recognise that there is a clear differentiation to be made between combustible tobacco products and smoke-free alternatives for those adults who do not quit using tobacco and nicotine products completely.

Furthermore, such a regulatory framework must include noticeable tax differentials between cigarettes and smoke-free products. This will not only provide financial support for adult smokers who don’t quit, but ​​also encourage the adoption of better products.

Striving for a smoke-free future

Current crises have shone a spotlight on the economic and financial struggles that consumers face daily. To support adult smokers, especially those most disadvantaged in our society, we must take steps to support them in making a better choice.

We must usher in an era of innovation and positive disruption to ensure that better alternatives to traditional tobacco products become accessible and affordable ​for​​​ all consumers. We must also ensure that innovation is equitable, meaning that everyone—regardless of their socioeconomic status, can access and therefore benefit from it.

By addressing the economic and financial obstacles that consumers face​,​ and embracing innovative solutions, we can work towards a future where smoking rates are reduced, and public health is improved.