Department for Health

Harm reduction and innovation

Cigarette packetsPeople smoke because they are addicted to nicotine and seek a 'hit', but it is the other toxins in tobacco that cause most of the harm. Nicotine can be obtained from a range of products, which vary in their level of harm and addictiveness, from smoked tobacco (i.e. cigarettes) at the top end of the harm/addiction spectrum, to medicinal nicotine (i.e. nicotine replacement therapy products) at the other end.

Tobacco harm reduction aims to reduce the harm caused by smoking, by encouraging smokers to shift to less hazardous forms of nicotine, ideally resulting in them ultimately quitting nicotine use altogether. This seems straightforward, yet tobacco harm reduction has been controversial and divisive in public health, in particular when debating a possible role for smokeless tobacco within a harm reduction strategy, with the tobacco industry’s role a key concern.

Furthermore, packaging and product innovation has become a key marketing technique for tobacco companies to encourage consumers to buy more expensive brands, allowing the companies to remain profitable despite falling cigarette volumes. A key concern is that innovations may convey a misleading suggestion of reduced risk, with market research company Euromonitor arguing that tobacco innovation has three purposes: to justify a premium price, to promote a different experience, and to suggest a reduced risk experience (Gilmore 2012).

As part of efforts to effectively inform tobacco control policy and ensure prompt policy responses to emerging issues, researchers at the University of Bath conduct work to critically examine tobacco industry claims of interest in harm reduction, whilst continuously monitoring new developments in tobacco products and packaging.

Our researchers involved in harm reduction and innovation:

Contribution of our researchers

TTC investment in smokeless tobacco in Europe

With few acquisition options remaining in the cigarette sector, the past few years have seen transnational tobacco companies acquiring smokeless tobacco companies, and very recently investing in pure nicotine (Bialous, Peeters, 2012). Funded by the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme, our researchers explored the TTCs’ rationale and strategies for investing in smokeless tobacco and promoting harm reduction, focussing on Europe (Peeters, Gilmore 2011). The work involved identifying historical interests in smokeless tobacco, analysing actual investments, and exploring how this may tie in with the tobacco companies’ approach to, and use of, harm reduction. In addition, the research revealed that the Internet is used to sell snus from Sweden to non-Swedish European Union (EU) citizens, despite sales being illegal in all EU Member States except Sweden (Peeters, Gilmore 2012).

Harm reduction as part of a CSR strategy

Preliminary findings suggest that a 2001 Institute of Medicine report influenced tobacco companies to adopt the term “harm reduction” (Peeters, Gilmore 2011). Realizing the opportunities such terminology presented, harm reduction has subsequently emerged as a core strategic and commercial focus for tobacco companies. To build on these preliminary findings, we are currently funded by the National Cancer Institute US National Institutes of Health to analyse;

  1. how tobacco companies adopted usage of this term,
  2. whether the (alleged) coincidence of interest with public health reflects opportunistic tactical adaptation to policy change or a substantive commitment to harm reduction,
  3. strategic variation by company.

This work involves linking analysis of previously secret tobacco industry documents work to analysis of more contemporary materials on tobacco industry investments in research, marketing and pricing of smokeless tobacco and other potentially reduced risk tobacco and nicotine products.

Monitoring innovations

As part of our ongoing efforts to monitor the business and marketing activities of tobacco companies, contemporary industry materials (including company annual reports, investor relations’ materials, press coverage, financial analyst and market research reports) are monitored to identify new product and packaging initiatives. A recent paper by Gilmore (2012) identified that innovations such as mentholated capsule filters are central to the industry’s current marketing efforts to drive sales of premium brands, thus profits, by ensuring a ‘willingness to pay a premium’ (Gilmore 2012).

Publications by our researchers

Gilmore, A. B. (2012) Understanding the vector in order to plan effective tobacco control policies: An analysis of contemporary tobacco industry materials. Tobacco Control, 21 (2), pp. 119-126. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2011-050397

Bialous, S. A., Peeters, S. (2012) A brief overview of the tobacco industry in the last 20 years. Tobacco Control, 21 (2), pp. 92-94. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2011-050395

Peeters, S., Gilmore, A. (2012) How online sales and promotion of snus contravenes current European Union legislation. Tobacco Control (in press). doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2011-050209

Gilmore, A. B., Britton, J., Arnott, D., Ashcroft, R. and Jarvis, M. J. (2009) The place for harm reduction and product regulation in UK tobacco control policy. Journal of Public Health, 31 (1), pp. 3-10