There was bad news from the UK last week, as the Office of National Statistics revealed that the country’s smoking rate has risen for the first time in six years. While the rise isn’t significant yet, it raises serious questions about the influence of tobacco control activists in making policy.

The latest data on UK smoking prevalence show a worrying reversal in the long-term downward trend. Since vaping became mainstream in around 2012 to 2013, Britain’s smoking rate has been falling steeply. From 20.4% in 2012, by 2016 it was down to 16.1%. While it’s very hard to prove a connection, there’s a mass of anecdotal evidence – and some more formal studies – to suggest that the availability of a popular, safer alternative has been driving the fall in smoking.

However, the Smoking Toolkit Study data from 2017 shows that the smoking rate has turned upwards again, hitting 16.8% last year. It isn’t a huge increase, but it was unexpected – at least by tobacco control activists.

Economics expert Christopher Snowdon of the IEA believes that the most likely cause of the rise is misguided policies introduced as a result of tobacco control lobbying. Two major laws came into effect in the UK last year, and Snowdon argues convincingly that, despite the claims of their supporters, they’re both likely to encourage people to smoke.

The EU’s Tobacco Products Directive is a notoriously bad piece of law, especially for its restrictions on vapour products. Criminalising the high-strength liquids smokers need to switch, restricting tank sizes and burdening the industry with unnecessary paperwork and fees, it has driven many products off the market and made vaping a less attractive option. However, by banning packs of ten cigarettes and small packets of rolling tobacco, it has also forced many smokers to buy more tobacco than previously.

Meanwhile, plain packaging (a flagship policy which activists claimed would radically cut smoking) has changed the economics of the cigarette market. Many smokers now buy cigarettes on price not branding, making the cheapest brands more prominent – and smoking more affordable. So far, three countries – Australia, France and the UK – have introduced plain packaging. All have seen an immediate rise in the smoking rate. Nevertheless, tobacco control continues to push for more of these misguided and dangerous policies.

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