Thursday, 29 December 2016

How many smokers really want to quit?

Nanny state extremists are fond of claiming that 90 per cent of smokers want to quit. The odious Simon Chapman, for example, when campaigning for smokers to be licensed, wrote...

Some 90% of smokers regret having started smoking

And the Chief Executive of ASH Wales says...

'We know that the vast majority of people who smoke want to quit...'

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that these claims are not wholly truthful. The latest edition of the Health Survey for England, published this month, gave smokers a number of statements, with which the following proportion agreed:

I really want to stop smoking and intend to in the next month: 7%

I really want to stop smoking and intend to in the next three months: 8% 

I really want to stop smoking but I don’t know when I will: 19%

I want to stop smoking and hope to soon: 16%

I want to stop smoking but haven’t thought about when: 10%

I think I should stop smoking but don’t really want to: 20%

I don’t want to stop smoking: 21%

Economists prefer revealed preferences to stated preferences for a good reason: talk is cheap. It would be the easiest thing in the world to tick a box in a survey expressing a desire to give up smoking. It is what you are supposed to say in the current climate, and it carries no cost.

Nevertheless, 41% said they did not want to give up smoking and a further 26% expressed only a vague aspiration to give up. 15% said they 'really wanted' to give up smoking and intended to actually do so in the foreseeable future. Good luck them, but let's not pretend that the 'vast majority' of smokers are locked into a miserable cycle of addiction and are desperate to quit. Even their (unreliable) stated preferences do not imply that.

Furthermore, if you look at the reasons why smokers say they want to quit, some of them have nothing to do with health. The price of tobacco is the most commonly cited reason after health concerns, but the cost of smoking is high because anti-smoking campaigners have successfully lobbied for tobacco duty to be raised with the specific intention of getting smokers to quit. It is an artificial inducement.

Other policies, such as smoking bans, have the same effect. They incline smokers towards quitting by making their lives difficult; they do not make smokers dislike smoking per se.

59 per cent of smokers in the Health Survey for England express some desire to quit. This is a slim majority, not a vast majority, and if we stripped out those who are merely expressing the politically correct opinion, or who only want to quit because anti-smoking campaigners have made their lives miserable, or who are expressing a second-order preference, it is safe to assume that the real figure is well below half.

Undeterred by the obvious problems of taking half-hearted stated preferences literally, ASH Scotland have recently come up with the ruse of talking about 'willing smokers'. Scotland's autocratic government has decided that the country must reduce its smoking rate below 5% by 2034. This seems unlikely, but the state-funded lobbyists at ASH Scotland have found a way to spin it...

The smoking rate currently stands at 21%, suggesting the tobacco-free goal might be some way off and will require some serious shifting to get us there. But, crucially, a consistent two-thirds of Scottish smokers say that they want to stop. This means that the actual willing adult smokers are just 7% of the population – and nearly 90% of the journey to this tobacco-free Scotland is helping those smokers who actively want to be free from their addiction. Who could argue with that?

The answer to that question is, of course, 'anyone with an IQ above room temperature'. It is rather like taking the population of a country and estimating the 'real' population by excluding everybody who says they would quite like to live somewhere else.

The ASH cranks even show a graph to demonstrate how close they are to their 5% goal if you treat the fact that smokers who say they want to quit are still smoking as a mere administrative detail.

If there has been a theme to the 'public health' racket in 2016, it has been wholesale substitution of fantasy for facts, models for reality, and so it is fitting to end the year with this little example.

Back on planet Earth, however, people do things because they enjoy them, and smokers no more appreciate being the target of vilification and extortion than any other minority. This week saw the publication of a report from the Centre for Substance Use Research looking at how 'confirmed smokers' feel about smoking. Based on a survey of over 600 smokers conducted by FOREST, it does not claim to take a representative sample, but it is a valuable reminder that smokers - including those who express a desire to quit - enjoy smoking. This shouldn't be surprising, but in the land of make believe that is 'public health' it is a radical, heretical idea.

You can read The Pleasure of Smoking: The Views of Confirmed Smokers here.

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