The government’s great triumph on smoking: it left e-cigarettes alone

    21 September 2016

    ‘Smoking rates in England fall to lowest on record’ isn’t much of a headline in itself. Smoking rates have been in long-term decline for decades, so any given year is likely to have the fewest smokers on record.

    But it is the scale of the recent decline that is newsworthy. Between 2012 and 2015, the proportion of English adults who smoked dropped from 19.3 per cent to 16.9 per cent, and the decline between 2014 and 2015 was particularly sharp. There was an even sharper fall in Scotland, where smoking prevalence fell at its fastest rate ever — from 23 to 20 per cent — between 2013 and 2014.

    What’s going on? Deborah Arnott of the anti-smoking quango Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) attributed the fall in smoking, in part, to the government’s ban on ‘glitzy tobacco packaging’. She means plain packaging. Ms Arnott has spent the last five years of her life furiously lobbying for this silly piece of virtue signalling so it is no surprise that it is at the forefront of her mind, but the smoking prevalence figures were collected in 2015, whereas plain packaging was only introduced in May 2016, and hardly anybody has seen a plain pack yet because retailers are still selling old stock. Doubtless ASH are already thinking of ways to put lipstick on this pig of a policy, but they could at least wait for it to come into effect before they start making their ridiculous claims.

    What Arnott cannot quite bring herself to say is that it is the e-cigarette, not big government interference, that has been the game-changer. As Public Health England has acknowledged, e-cigarettes are the most popular stop-smoking aid. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but vaping is a much better explanation for the sudden downturn in smoking rates than brown cigarette packs that no one has seen.

    It is easy to assume that smoking rates have been dropping like a stone in the nine years since the smoking ban was introduced, but this is to mistake action for results. In reality, the smoking ban marked the point at which the long-term decline in smoking pretty much came to a halt.

    Between 1998 and 2007, the smoking rate in Britain dropped by a quarter — from 28 per cent of adults to 21 per cent. It was at this point that anti-smoking laws went into overdrive. There was the smoking ban, the vending machine ban, the graphic warnings, the grotesque advertising campaigns and the tobacco duty escalator. And what did we get in return for this legislative diarrhoea? A tiny drop in smoking prevalence from 21 per cent in 2007 to 20.5 per cent in 2012.

    But then e-cigarettes burst on the scene. Between 2011 and the start of 2013, the number of people using e-cigarettes rose from virtually zero to five per cent of the population. By the summer of 2013, they had overtaken nicotine replacement therapy as the most popular stop-smoking aid and, despite claims about vaping acting as a ‘gateway’ to smoking, smoking rates finally started to drop again. As of 2014, the prevalence rate in the UK was 19 per cent, and the 2015 data for England suggest an even steeper decline since then.

    All this has been achieved without a penny being spent by government. It has happened despite the active resistance of large parts of the ‘public health’ lobby, despite an outrageous campaign of fear from anti-smoking campaigners around the world, despite complaints about fewer people using NHS smoking cessation services, and despite attempts by the World Health Organisation and (abortively) the European Union to nip vaping in the bud. It was, as Public Health England’s Kevin Fenton said at a conference this week, ‘a consumer-led phenomenon, almost entirely unmediated by the healthcare profession’.

    I was interested to read in David Halpern’s book Inside the Nudge Unit that the Behavioural Insights Team’s most important contribution to the health of the nation was persuading the government to leave e-cigarettes alone at a time when many other countries were banning them. That was all the government needed to do: get out of the way. Now that was a real achievement. It’s a shame that doing nothing will never catch on amongst the self-appointed custodians of the people’s health and well-being.