For tobacco companies and their allies illicit tobacco is often the first thing they reach for when they want to oppose price increases or regulations.
And often the resulting message that is highlighted in the media stories is along the lines of “those illegal fags are dangerous, full of nasty chemicals and rat droppings”. Clearly the reader could be expected to pick up the idea that the “legitimate” product might somehow be more wholesome. When this is justified at all it is often with reference to illicit tobacco having “up to 500%” more carcinogens.
This figure stems from a study carried out by Ed Stephens at St Andrews University back in 2004. This cropped up again the other day in a media release from the Local Government Association, which received wide coverage in mainstream and social media. While I am completely behind what the LGA was trying to do with their release, that link to one study over ten years ago dominated the headlines.
The figure particularly caught my attention this time because we had the self-same Ed Stephens in one of our seminars here at ASH Scotland a few months ago. It was interesting to hear his own take on the continuing popularity of his study.
To quote Ed Stephens directly (and I checked this quote with him before publication):
“I regret the way that my one study from some years ago is used to generalise about illicit tobacco. Of course illicit tobacco is a dangerous substance, and anyone concerned for their health should avoid it, but there is every indication that the legal product on sale in every corner shop and grocery store causes much the same level of harm.”
So let’s get the messaging clear. Amongst the various problems associated with illicit tobacco is that it is very unhealthy to use. But illicit tobacco is bad for you because it is tobacco not because it is illicit.