150203 Number of smokers
  • Wheezing to a halt. What you’ll see in the above graph is one helluva decline. In 1974, 46 per cent of people aged over 16 smoked. In 2013, it was 19 per cent. Which is a 27 percentage point difference over 39 years. It came not just from fewer people taking up smoking: the proportion of avowed non-smokers rose by 21 percentage points over the same time. But also from more people quitting: half of all regular smokers now tend to give up the ciggies.
  • Blame it on the married, rich people.There are demographic divides between all these smokers and non-smokers. Did you know, for instance, that married people are far less likely to smoke? And it’s not just because they tend to be older: as the Office for National Statistics puts it, “when age was controlled for, unmarried people were almost twice as likely to be cigarette smokers as married people.” And something similar could be said for the well-off and the less well-off. 23 per cent of those earning under £10,000 a year are smokers. Among those earning over £40,000 it’s 11 per cent.
  • What convinced them? One striking thing: the numbers suggest that the smoking ban hasn’t, by itself, had much of an effect. Since the legislation came into effect across the UK, between March 2006 and July 2007, the proportion of smokers has fallen by only 3 percentage points. And so, to explain the decline over decades, you’ve got to look at longitudinal factors. One will surely be the numerous campaigns against smoking, of which the ban is effectively a part. Another will be the development of various pills and patches and inhalers to help folk quit. But then there’s also the cost of cigarettes, which has consistently risen above inflation since 1970.
  • Pounds and pence. Speaking of cost, the Treasury may have mixed feelings about all of this. On the negative side of its ledger are the expenditures associated with smoking. Most studies put the annual NHS bill at around £2 billion to £5 billion; but there are other, more mysterious sums, such as the number of working days lost to poor health. All in all, Policy Exchange reckons that smoking costs society about £14 billion a year. But on the positive side of the Treasury’s ledger there’s the £12 billion raised each year from cigarette taxes and VAT. No wonder politicians are looking to vilify e-cigarettes, and potentially stack up the levies on them, as traditional smokers wane into extinction.
  • Plain puzzling. Your response to the graph at the top of this post may reveal something about your response to plain packaging. Is the policy worth trying to push the downwards trend, which has slowed in recent years, further towards naught? Or is it a state intervention too far, particularly when the number of smokers is already in long-term decline? Answers in the comments section, please.