The nationwide smoking ban has triggered the biggest fall in smoking ever seen in England, a report says today.
More than two billion fewer cigarettes were smoked and 400,000 people quit the habit since the ban was introduced a year ago, which researchers say will prevent 40,000 deaths over the next 10 years.
Smoking was outlawed in all enclosed public spaces in England, including pubs and restaurants, on 1 July 2007 after a prolonged political battle that split the Government and inflamed critics of Britain as a nanny state.
But longer term opposition to the ban never materialised: more than three out of four people support the law, and compliance has been virtually 100 per cent.
Similar bans were introduced in Scotland on 26 March 2006 and in Wales on 2 April 2007. Doctors said they were astonished by the numbers quitting. Robert West, director of tobacco studies at the Health Behaviour Research Unit, University College London, who carried out the study, said: "These figures show the largest fall in the number of smokers on record. The effect has been as large in all social groups – poor as well as rich. I never expected such a dramatic impact." There was no guarantee that smoking rates would not start to rise again, after falling, and it was crucial to maintain the downward pressure, Professor West said. Currently around 22 per cent of the adult population smoke in Britain.
"If the Department of Health can keep up the momentum this has created, there is a realistic prospect of achieving a target of less than 15 per cent of the population smoking within 10 years," he said.
The survey of 32,000 people in England interviewed before and after the ban took effect found the decline in smoking had accelerated. In the nine months before the ban it fell 1.6 per cent compared with 5.5 per cent in the nine months after the ban. Researchers estimate on the basis of these figures that 400,000 people quit smoking as a result of the ban.
The findings are to be presented at the UK National Smoking Cessation Conference in Birmingham tomorrow. The study, by Cancer Research UK and its partners, is the first in the world to examine the impact of a smoking ban in isolation from other tobacco control measures.
Jean King, Cancer Research UK's director of tobacco control, said: "The smoke-free law was introduced to protect the health of workers from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. The results show it has also encouraged smokers to quit. These laws are saving lives and we mustn't forget that half of all smokers die from tobacco-related illness. We must do everything possible to continue this success – we now need a national tobacco control plan for the next five years."
Cigarette sales fell by 6 per cent in the past year, according to the market research company, Neilson. In the 10 months from July 2007 to the end of April 2008, 1.93 billion fewer cigarettes were sold in England and 220,000 fewer in Scotland (where the smoking ban was introduced a year earlier), equivalent to a total decline in sales over the full year of 2.6 billion.
Jake Shepherd, the marketing director at Neilson, said smoking had been hit by a triple whammy, which accounted for the dramatic effect.
"In addition to the smoking ban, sales have been hit by the outlawing of the sale of tobacco to under-18s and the increase of duty on tobacco, which is pricing cash-strapped smokers out of the market," he said.
Pubs have also suffered from the ban, with 175 million fewer pints sold in the nine months from July to last April as smokers have been driven outside.
Total sales of alcohol fell 8 per cent, compared to a steady 3 per cent fall in previous years, just under half of which was attributable to the smoking ban, according to Neilson.
Mr Shepherd said: "The wet summer of 2007 added to the downturn. The winter months were particularly bad – sales fell 9.3 per cent from November to January when smokers would have been reluctant to stand outside in the cold to have a cigarette."
Proposals to restrict the sale of cigarettes by removing them from display and a ban on vending machines are under consideration by the Government. The anti-smoking pressure group ASH said that further action was necessary to curb smoking by young people.
Deborah Arnott, the director of ASH, said: "The smoke-free legislation has been a fantastic success and is hugely popular. But what it also shows is a hunger for more action.
"There is still much more that needs to be done. The Government should focus on measures to shield children from tobacco industry marketing while parents and carers can do much more to protect children from exposure to secondhand smoke."
A survey of 1,000 people with lung conditions by the British Lung Foundation found more than half said they had suffered fewer attacks of breathlessness from exposure to smokers in pubs and restaurants, and more than a third said it had helped keep them out of hospital.
Dame Helena Shovelton, the foundation's chief executive, said: The smoking ban has helped to save the lives of people with breathing problems by cutting down their exposure to passive smoke. People with smoking-related lung conditions know how devastating it is to be struggling for breath. A smoke-free atmosphere gives our lungs a new lease of life."