ONS Report Rise in Vaping, Drop in Smokers

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has reported a drop in the number of smokers in the UK. Not uncoincidentally, they have also documented a rise in the number of vapers.

ONS data

The ONS has been collecting data on smoking since 2011 via the Annual Population Survey (APS). This year’s report on adult smoking habits in 2021 (released in December 2022) shows that 13.3% were current smokers.

That percentage constitutes 6.6 million smokers. It’s the lowest number of UK smokers since the ONS recorded this data. Compared with 2020, smoking rates have dropped from 14% to 13.3%. 

While it might not seem like a massive fall, the ONS has described it as “statistically significant”. In easier-to-understand terms, it suggests roughly 330,000 people have stopped smoking in the last year. When looked at that way, it’s excellent news.

Vaping on the rise

The report also indicates that e-cigarette use continues to climb. Data collected in 2020 suggested that 6.4% of Great Britain vaped daily or occasionally. That number has risen to 7.7% in a year.

Pearl clutching in the media has disproportionately focused on the rise in youth vaping, trotting out the debunked idea that vaping is a gateway to smoking. And yet, that wacky hypothesis is not reflected in an increase in smoking rates.

The ONS has at least acknowledged that the “decrease in the proportion of current smokers may be partly attributed to the increase in vaping and e-cigarette use”. It’s a cautious and mealy-mouthed admission, but an admission nonetheless.

It does make you wonder what they think the causal factor in 330,000 people giving up smoking is. 

Demographic details from the ONS study

The ONS also releases some demographic details on smokers in Great Britain. Some of these figures aren’t too surprising.

  • Men (15.1%) are more likely to smoke than women (11.5%)
  • 15.8% of UK citizens aged between 25 to 34 are current smokers
  • People with no qualifications are more likely to smoke (28.2%)
  • Only 6.6% of people with a college degree or higher smoke

The last two points are pretty concerning. There isn’t a lot of thorough research on socio economic awareness of vaping as an alternative to smoking. However, one study suggests that education and ethnicity correlate with knowledge of vaping and its health benefits.

If class or access to education determines whether people have the information they need to make healthier lifestyle choices, this exacerbates existing health inequalities. It also underlines the damage that misinformation about vaping or other harm-reduction methods can do.

Ultimately, vaping or smoking is a personal choice. Both are legal, and a free society should allow people some degree of freedom to engage in activities of their choosing. However, we all have an obligation to ensure that people have the best information to make rational choices.

Denying the link between the drop in smoking and the rise in vaping is irresponsible. It should inform health policy and message around e-cigarettes rather than be some footnote in the drive towards a SmokeFreeGB.


When the ONS first started collecting data on adult smoking rates in the UK in 2011, about 20% of the Great British population smoked. In the short space of just over a decade, that number is down to 13.3%. The current number of vapers sits at 7.7%.

If we add 13.3% and 7.7% together, we get 21%. Is there any other domain of human activity where the rise and fall of two related statistics would be brushed off as a correlation? Perhaps the most insulting part is the absence of an alternative theory to explain this phenomenon.