On Tuesday the Office for National Statistics – the UK government’s official agency for assessing economic and social behaviour – released their latest statistical bulletin on smoking prevalence. It made for interesting reading:

    • The proportion of current smokers in the UK has fallen significantly from 14.7% in 2018 to 14.1% in 2019.
    • In Great Britain, 5.7% of respondents in 2019 said they currently used an e-cigarette, which equates to nearly 3 million adults in the population.

Figure 1 Smoking prevalence has fallen in all four countries of the UK since 2011

The number of vapers in the UK has not changed much since previous assessments, but smoking prevalence continues to decline at a significant rate.

Many of the direst predictions of the effect of safer nicotine products – not just here but in other countries - have often focussed strongly on the possibility of a ‘gateway’ from vaping to combustible tobacco use, especially amongst youth. However, in the UK where regulations on reduced risk products are arguably the most liberal in the world, this is simply not happening.

These figures seem to endorse the government’s willingness to allow vaping and other safer nicotine delivery systems to flourish. Who knows how many dual users have now transitioned entirely to vaping amongst that static population of 3 million e-cigarette users? Additionally, how many of the statistically significant number of smokers have switched to other safer products not studied in this analysis such as heated tobacco and tobacco free nicotine pouches which are now sold in UK supermarkets?

One thing that seems certain is that if anywhere was to see a big gateway effect from widespread use of vaping products and other alternatives, it would be here in the UK. But there is no apocalypse as predicted by negative soothsayers, it would appear that normalising alternative products merely normalises switching away from smoking. 

It is also worth noting that this decline is in the face of some atrocious media headlines and heavy funding of bad news from conflicted sources. One can only conclude that if the fear merchants would stop spreading myths and half-truths to the British public, the declines could be even more impressive than they already are.

So, it seems that the end is not nigh at all if a government supports tobacco harm reduction; these statistics suggest the complete opposite is true.  

It is a shame that other nations are not enlightened enough to recognise the benefits of vaping and other reduced risk products, and that their governments refuse to take their blinkers off and look at the overwhelming scientific evidence in favour of alternatives to smoking. The ONS has just added to that evidence and there must surely come a time when common sense prevails not just here but in other jurisdictions too.

If anything, this news should encourage the UK government to be even bolder and further relax restrictions on safer nicotine products to make them more visible to the 52.7% of smokers who the ONS has concluded want to quit. Outside of the EU, this is an eminent possibility for the UK, and we hope that the opportunity will be embraced.

Franklin D Roosevelt is famously quoted as saying that, sometimes, there is nothing to be feared except fear itself. This latest evidence shows that this is especially true of tobacco harm reduction policies.