What’s so great about falling smoking rates?

This week, Public Health England published stats showing that cigarette-smoking rates have fallen to the lowest levels ever recorded. In 2015, 16.9 per cent of adults described themselves as smokers, compared with 19.3 per cent in 2012. Looking further back, over half of men and over 40 per cent of women were smokers in Britain in 1974. Good news, right?

Undoubtedly, the message that smoking increases your risk of developing a variety of diseases has got through. Fewer people have taken up smoking as a result, and more people feel motivated to quit. There are twice as many ex-smokers in the UK now as there are current smokers. So much for the claim that smoking is so addictive that it is impossible to give up the habit, or that teenage smoking is effectively a death sentence to be carried out decades hence.

Another positive is that many smokers have switched to a less risky alternative: e-cigarettes. Indeed, e-cigs have become the most popular way of quitting: more than a million people said they vaped to help them quit, while 700,000 used nicotine-replacement products like patches or gum. NHS stop-smoking services are running out of punters, and prescriptions for smoking-cessation aids have fallen from two million 10 years ago to 1.3million in the latest figures. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that giving people a viable alternative to smoking is more successful than medicalising it.

But there is, of course, another reason for falling smoking rates: the endless war on tobacco. Yes, the biggest falls in smoking rates occurred before the most draconian measures were introduced. But campaigners still celebrate the success of the clampdown on smoking. Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), told the Guardian: ‘The continuing decline in smoking prevalence is a tribute to many years when successive governments have implemented comprehensive and progressive tobacco-control strategies, including tax rises, mass-media campaigns, anti-smuggling measures, smoke-free laws, advertising bans, and last but not least getting rid of tobacco displays and glitzy tobacco packaging.’

Clearly, Arnott is exaggerating the success of these measures to justify their introduction. Indeed, she seems to be so overexcited that she credits the ban on ‘glitzy tobacco packaging’ (aka, the introduction of plain packs) with part of the decline in smoking rates last year, despite the fact that plain packs won’t start appearing until next year. This remarkable policy apparently works retrospectively.

Nonetheless, it is quite likely that this panoply of punishment has had some effect on smoking rates. Basic economics suggests that, when cigarettes come with an effective tax rate of 400 per cent, the price is bound to have some effect.

But should we really be cracking open the champagne because many smokers have been forced to quit their habit, not because they stopped enjoying it, but because it has become too expensive, or they can now only enjoy it in their own homes? Smoking is at the forefront of lifestyle illiberalism. What on Earth is worth celebrating about that?

Rob Lyons is campaigns manager at Action on Consumer Choice.

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