Denormalisation, smoking rates and the way ahead for tobacco product regulation
The primary objective of most international tobacco control initiatives is to reduce smoking rates. Addressing the European Parliament on 25 February 2013, the Irish Minister for Health, James Reilly said: “…The overall prevalence rates for Ireland are more or less similar to the EU average with 29% of Irish adults being current smokers. This is simply not acceptable.”
Data confirm smoking rates in Ireland to be at 29% of the population and this figure has remained unchanged since 2002. According to the latest available data reported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Greece and Ireland have the highest smoking rates in the European Union, whereas Sweden has the lowest – at just 12.5% for men and 14.3% for women in 2011. To put this in context, the EU average is currently 28%.
Rates of decline in smoking rates between 1990 and 2010 were significantly greater in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, all countries where smokeless tobacco remains freely available. In each, the rate of decline over a 20 year period was over 45% from 1990 levels. The lowest rate of decline was in Ireland – less than 3% lower than it was in 1990. Of those countries reported by OECD, only Russia has a worse record then Ireland.
The efficacy of tobacco regulatory policy can be judged by its effect on smoking rates. This paper will investigate some facts behind the OECD report and consider what impact initiatives such as smoking bans, bans on tobacco display and other initiatives have had. The data show consistently the decline in smoking rates has been levelling off for the last ten years in most developed countries, including in Ireland, Australia, Canada and the UK where these measures have been in force for much of that time.
On the other hand, in those countries where there is an attractive alternative to smoking, smoking rates are still declining consistently. In Sweden and Norway, not only are the smoking rates already low, but the current rates of decline in smoking look set to continue.
Put in the simplest terms the data suggests that the WHO’s FCTC ‘denormalisation experiment’ will not deliver on its central promise to “…progressively reduce the prevalence and exposure from tobacco use”. Analysis of smoking rates in Europe over the last 20 years suggest that it will only be possible to reduce smoking rates significantly by presenting the consumer with a choice, including the availability of smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes.
 OECD Factbook 2013, Smoking: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/factbook-2013-en