A new survey conducted for the British government claims that England’s smoking ban has failed to get people to quit smoking as backers hoped it would. The Daily Mail reports:
The ban on smoking in public has failed to increase the number of people quitting, a report revealed yesterday.
The proportion of men who smoke has actually risen since the ban in July last year while there was no change at all among women.
The figures, coming after years of declining smoking rates, are a massive blow to Labour’s public heath policy.
A survey of almost 7,000 across all age groups found on average there was no change in the number of cigarettes that smokers said they had.
But in men aged 16 to 34, the number rose, by one and a half cigarettes a day.
It had been hoped the ban would help reduce smoking rates among the poor in particular, but instead the number of cigarettes smoked by working class men has gone up.
The Health Survey for England, carried out by the NHS for ministers, has raised fears that smokers are simply lighting up at home rather than in pubs and restaurants – potentially putting children at risk.
The Department of Health’s response:
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: ‘Smokefree laws were introduced to protect employees and the public from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.
‘The legislation was never intended to be a measure to reduce smoking prevalence.’
Fair enough, if it were true. From the same article, here’s then Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt right before the ban took effect:
‘This is an enormous step forward for public health. It is going to make it easier for people who want to give up smoking to do so. Over time it will save thousands of lives.’
And a BBC article from the same time:
The government predicts about 600,000 people will give up smoking as a result of the law change.
And Guardian coverage:
The Department of Health estimates that around 700,000 of England’s 10 million smokers will quit as a result of the ban – an average of 1,300 people in each MP’s constituency.
Here’s the Daily Mail again, reporting on a study from earlier this year when it looked like the ban truly was causing people quit:
Another study, by the Department of Health, will also highlight tomorrow the success of the smoking ban in encouraging people to quit the habit.
The report will show that a total of 234,060 people have stopped smoking with the help of the NHS Quit Smoking Service since the ban was brought in on July 1, 2007.
That is 22 per cent more people than in the previous 12 months.
And for good measure, here’s one of the four reasons for implementing the ban listed on the Department of Health’s own website:
Smokefree law… helps people trying to give up smoking by providing supportive smokefree environments
The DoH is right to say that the main justification for smoking bans (to the extent that there is one) is to protect non-smokers; it’s a line spokesmen have used in the past as well. Yet from the beginning the department has consistently stressed that the ban would spur people to quit smoking and gladly took credit when it appeared that it did. If the new survey is accurate, DoH should own up to the failure.*
The interesting question is why smoking rates haven’t decreased and why they’re increasing among young men. I’m a bit skeptical of the finding, actually. At least in the first months following the ban, sales of cigarettes in England declined significantly. Even so, the survey appears reputable. It suggests that many people are choosing to just stay home and smoke. I have another theory.
In bars where smoking is allowed, I never smoke cigarettes. I don’t like them. My friends can smoke though, and we can still hang out together. Smoking bans change the dynamic. Now my friends have to step outside and I often find that the people I most want to talk to (i.e. the cool kids) are no longer in the bar. Or perhaps I’ll be chatting with a woman who suggests we step outside for a cigarette. Am I going to say no? Of course not, I go with her. And since it would be awkward to stand outside in the cold not smoking, the other person constantly aware that her habit is all that’s keeping me from warmth and drink, I’m going to light up as well.
For me this still adds up to less than 10 cigarettes a year and, at the risk of sounding Clintonian, I don’t inhale. But I can see how people who like cigarettes could end up smoking much more. As any smoker knows, smoking invites sociality, and bans have shifted the liveliest social space from a shared area inside the bar to an exclusive smokers’ club outside it. If young men really are smoking more than they were before, I suspect that this is one of the ban’s unintended consequences.
*A very trivial way out of this would be for DoH to claim that hundreds of thousands of smokers really did quit but that they’ve been unexpectedly replaced by a cohort of brand new smokers. I don’t think they’ll make that argument.