How Britain was already winning the war on smoking – without banning it

Rates of smoking in the UK have fallen from of 45.6 per cent to 11.2 per cent since 1974
Rates of smoking in the UK have fallen from of 45.6 per cent to 11.2 per cent since 1974 - Getty

Is a cigarette ban the hill the Prime Minister is willing to die on?

It seems so. Rishi Sunak’s flagship phased smoking ban, which would prevent anyone born after 2009 from buying cigarettes, passed its first hurdle in the Commons on Tuesday despite nearly half of Tory MPs abstaining or voting against it. Sunak is understood to see the ban as a key part of his legacy.

Under the Tobacco and Vapes Bill, the legal age for the purchase of cigarettes would rise annually, eventually wiping smoking out entirely. It would also include a ban on disposable vapes. The move would be the first of its kind in the world, after New Zealand withdrew plans for similar legislation earlier this year.

It is a source of deep division within the Conservative party, with leadership hopefuls and two former prime ministers – Liz Truss and Boris Johnson – speaking out against it.

Some critics have labelled it “profoundly unconservative”. Others argue the war on smoking is one that the UK has essentially already won.

So, have the Tories given themselves a political headache over a problem that was already on its way to being solved? Or does an outright ban, popular among voters, have merit?

Turning the tide on tobacco

Cigarettes are on their way out, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures, which show that since 1974, rates of smoking have been cut from 45.6 per cent to 11.2 per cent. (And of those who still smoke, almost half – 45.4 per cent – intend to quit.) The proportion of the population who have never smoked has increased from 37.4 per cent in 1974 to 62.1 per cent in 2022, and will continue to rise. In almost every group the picture is one of steady decline.

Given the direction of travel, some are concerned an outright ban could backfire, making smoking seem rebellious and “cool” for a generation who do not smoke anyway (only one per cent of those aged 11-15 now do so regularly) and leading to a black-market boom. It also creates the farcical scenario where, at some point in the future, a 41-year-old will be able to buy whatever they want in the off-licence but a 40-year-old will be banned from buying a pack of cigarettes.

“It’s unworkable, it’s authoritarian, it’s unnecessary and it’s going to be counterproductive,” says Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. “I don’t see what moral justification there is for it when we’re talking about adults. If people want to do things that harm their health, they should be free to do so… Smoking was on its way out anyway.”

What do voters think?

A clear majority of voters support Sunak’s ban.

The health burden from smoking remains high: smoking is the single biggest preventable cause of disability and death in the UK, claiming 80,000 lives a year and costing the NHS billions. According to recent polling conducted by Savanta for The Telegraph, almost six in 10 people (59 per cent) supported the policy, while just one in five (20 per cent) opposed it.

Yet critics within the Conservative party have dismissed Sunak’s plans to snuff out smoking as an illiberal gimmick.

Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt and Suella Braverman did not support the legislation. Former prime minister Truss called it a “profoundly unconservative” move by the “health police”; Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed the policy as “absurd”.

How did the UK succeed?

Ideological arguments about the merit of a ban aside, it is true that the UK’s clamp-down on smoking has been a success story to date. The chance that a person is a smoker in the UK has been steadily decreasing since records began. Telegraph analysis of WHO data shows the UK has cut smoking more than any other western country since 2000, with the exception of Austria, Sweden and Norway. It currently has the third lowest smoking prevalence in the West.

Previous government measures to crack down on smoking have been successful, including increased taxation. The Marlboro Man has long been replaced by an advertising ban and graphic photographs of diseased lungs on cigarette packets. A 20-a-day smoker will now spend 16 per cent of their income on cigarettes, compared with eight per cent in 2000, Telegraph analysis of ONS figures shows.

Since the indoor ban was enforced in 2007, together with a ban on purchasing tobacco for under-18s, cigarettes have increased in price from £5 for a pack of 20 to £15.50. The Government now raises £10 billion from taxes on smoking, which is equivalent to £1,663 per smoker, up from £449 in 2000, according to Telegraph analysis of ONS and HMRC figures.

As a result, today’s teenagers barely smoke. According to data from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the proportion of 14-year-olds who smoked regularly fell from seven per cent in 2011 to one per cent in 2021; among 15-year-olds, it fell from 11 per cent to three per cent in the same period. A generation ago, 50 per cent of school children would have tried smoking, now it is 12 per cent.

This is, of course, partly because they have swapped cigarettes for e-cigs. Young people today are far more likely to buy a candy-coloured vape than a pack of Marlboro Golds. But surely it is a victory that smoking is seen almost universally as uncool. The demand just isn’t there; even Marlboro itself has promised to switch from selling cigarettes to smoking gadgets, not out of concern for its customers’ health, but to protect its bottom line.

Who is still lighting up, and where?

Across the UK, smokers are most likely to be young men. Geographic hotspots include some of the most deprived parts of the country.

Within the Conservative Party itself, several prominent figures – all of whom voted in favour of the ban – have openly admitted to being smokers or are known to be so.

They include Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, who reportedly has a smoking hut on the roof of his office; Johnny Mercer, Richard Holden and Robert Halfon. Tory bigwigs who have given up include Sajid Javid, who stopped smoking when he became health secretary, and Laura Farris, Minister for Victims and Safeguarding.

Farris said that taking up smoking at age 12 was “one of my biggest regrets actually… I’ve got two young kids now and the fact that they will never be able to walk into a shop and buy a packet of cigarettes is something I welcome.”

Since records began, rates of smoking have been higher in men than in women and they remain so, at 14.6 per and 11.2 per cent respectively. The other characteristics of a smoker remain unchanged: smoking is still most prevalent among those aged 25-34, and rates are highest in the local authorities of Kingston Upon Hull and Blackpool, two of the most deprived in England. As has always been the case, smoking is more common among people who are unemployed or in manual occupations compared with managerial and professional jobs.

However, there is one anomaly: while smoking is in decline across the board, a 10-year study from University College London found that more middle-class women under 45 have started smoking over the past decade. Researchers suggested the cost of living crisis may have affected more disadvantaged women’s finances and so their desire to smoke. Despite this, rates of vaping among all women aged 18-45 have tripled in a decade.

When smoking dies out, we will be healthier for it. But a phased ban could be a blunt tool given it was already running out of puff.