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

News & Analysis

21st 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.


  • Totally agree.

  • Lollylulubes

    Great article.

    Anyone opposing vaping is protecting the smoking economy and the tobacco and pharmaceutical companies from competition. When it comes to a town near you, everyone should go and see the documentary A Billion Lives (Lies) …… it uncovers the corruption being used against vaping and the millions of smokers yet to switch. In their eyes, our lives are simply collateral damage for cash.

    • David Mullen

      There was a shock value but plain packaging is now old hat,and people don’t take any notice!.

  • JonathanBagley

    Excellent summary of the issue.

  • castello

    Nicely stated. We have only had obstruction over here in the states. The best example I’ve seen from years ago is this. https://www.e-cigarette-forum.com/forum/threads/dhhs-funded-moffitt-cancer-center-survey-found-79-of-vapers-quit-smoking-but.725563/

    • ScottWichall

      Well the Master Settlement Agreement income has to be protected. Think of all those bonds that greedy state politicians sold thinking they were going to keep reaping the tax income from tobacco. Once they mature its bankruptcy time.

  • Vinny Gracchus

    it should have left cigarettes alone too. Smoking bans are based on tobacco control lies. For an example consider the alleged heart attack reduction miracles (as concocted in Helena, MT and Scotland)–all lies….

  • David Robertson

    OK so this article is so full of half-truths and misrepresentation and lack of balance that it would be difficult to mount a concise critique and it would be dismissed by most of the people who have commented so far. So, consider this:

    Is it right to allow the marketing of a tobacco product in the same way as products which do not kill 50% of long-term customers? No. Therefore you restrict and limit how such a dangerous product is accessed by the public and you explain the dangers as forcefully as possible. Is it the case that individual and population health is improved by reducing smoking prevalence and exposure to SHS? Yes. Therefore you take the same measures taken to guard against uptake and exposure that you would for any previous challenges to public health such as contaminated water or asbestos. This has taken time because rich people no longer smoke but maintain their wealth at the expense of the poor and those suffering poor mental health and disadvantage by investing in tobacco companies and the new addiction driven vaping industry. Does vaping represent harm reduction. Yes. It may be helping to convert the most addicted smokers (the last 20%) to a less harmful means of managing their addiction but it is not harm-less and requires a degree of control to ensure it is used mainly for cessation and not for maintaining or recruiting tobacco smokers or generating another 50 years of profit for an addiction industry at the expense of long-term population health. Did any country lower their prevalence rate by doing nothing? Ask Indonesians. Are there people who would see a person standing on a bridge ready to jump to their deaths but do nothing? Yes there are, but they can still reflect on their views and change their minds.

    • TwistedAdonis

      And what will you do about your addiction to pontificating on subjects you clearly know nothing about? There is no evidence that nicotine is addictive unless it is combined with tobacco. Should caffeine users be legislated against?
      I think we should have a law against busybodies who can’t stand people doing something that they don’t approve of.

  • busbybabes

    Hopefully we are out of the EU before they enforce their ridiculous ban on menthol cigarettes in May 2020. And this article is not technically correct – the laws on e-cigarettes are changing this coming May, also courtesy of the EU. The revised tobacco products directive (TPD2) treats adult smokers like children by reducing pack sizes. On top of that there is no actual evidence that plain packaging reduces the number of people smoking; the only winners in this legislation are criminals who will find it easier to produce counterfeit cigarettes due to the lack of branding. This is backed up with evidence that the number of counterfeit cigarettes making their way to Australia has risen recently.