As has been widely reported, new data published last week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals that the smoking rate for over 18s in the UK in 2021 declined to a record low of 13.3%. The ONS described the drop in smoking numbers since the previous year’s rate of 14.0% as statistically significant and concluded that vaping had played “a major role” in the reduction.

This is great news at the end of a difficult year for many, but also a ringing endorsement of vaping as a successful nicotine alternative for millions of people wishing to quit smoking. As advocates for tobacco harm reduction, we are obviously encouraged by these data which align with the experience of our trustees and many of our associates and supporters who have managed to quit combustible tobacco by using vaping products instead.

However, we are by no means surprised by the latest figures. It has become abundantly clear that wherever lower risk nicotine products are regulated sensibly, smoking rates decline faster than in countries where they are banned or restricted unnecessarily.

In the UK, the public is used to hearing about vaping in the media and the increasing numbers of vapers mean that most people will know a friend or family member who uses some form of vaping product. In other countries, vaping is not so well-known but other options such as snus and heated tobacco are producing the same results.

Japan and South Korea are seeing dramatic reductions in cigarette sales since heated tobacco products hit the market. In the case of Japan, by over 50%. Similarly, in Scandinavia, where snus is the dominant cigarette substitute, smoking rates are significantly lower than in the rest of Europe where it is unwisely prohibited by the EU. There is also considerable potential for further drops in smoking numbers by the recent introduction of nicotine pouches to markets around the world.  

This is why we will continue to campaign for wider availability of all safer nicotine products in the UK, not just e-cigarettes. It is laudable that the UK government leads the world by embracing vaping and recommending smokers switch, with positive messaging coming from smoking cessation services and on the NHS website, but we would like to see more recognition and acceptance of other alternatives for those for whom vaping doesn’t work.

Ultimately, we would like to see the government regulate products on the basis of the relative risks they present and put in place a tobacco and nicotine policy which distinguishes between combustible and non-combustible products rather than whether or not they contain tobacco.

The new ONS report shows that encouraging smokers to switch to alternative products is a successful strategy for driving down cigarette use, so just imagine how much better the results would be if more people were aware that vaping is not the only option out there. We have imagined that and have put forward twenty proposals for going “all in” on low-risk products to transform nicotine use in the UK from the most harmful option, combustible cigarettes, to products which are orders of magnitude safer.

The latest smoking prevalence data is some good news at the end of 2022, and on that note, we would like to wish all our enthusiastic and generous supporters a merry Christmas and a happy new year. We hope that 2023 can bring more good news and a positive government stance on all tobacco harm reduction products for the good of both consumer choice and public health.

The UK’s experience with vaping proves that harm reduction works, so let’s do more of it.