The Daily Mail’s gossip column and Old Etonians are two things that go together rather well, but the diary is not normally where one turns for considered health advice. And why should one? A gossip column is a place of hearsay and tattle rather than policy and poise – and recent Old Etonians seem to have such deeply ingrained memories of their nannies that they are among the worst advocates of Nanny-Statism.

But there was an interesting little item, on Sebastian Shakespeare’s page in Saturday’s Daily Mail, that deserves wider attention. Running across Nicholas Haslam OE, the celebrated designer, socialite and belle lettrist, Shakespeare gleaned the following quote :

‘No one was fat when I was young, because they all smoked. It was only when the government cracked down on smoking that obesity began to appear. Before then, everybody ate terribly and smoked constantly, and they all looked pale and beautiful. There would be no need for all this sugar tax if we all just smoked again.’

Sounds absurd? Actually, Haslam may well have highlighted a consequence of smoking-reduction that the health experts have been keen to play down. Look at this graph from the Health Survey for England, showing smoking versus obesity rates between 1994 and 2014:


Since 1998, there has been a rough correlation between decreasing rates of smoking and rising obesity in the UK, culminating in the latter overtaking the former in 2005, just before smoking was banned in pubs across the country. It would be interesting to see if the quantity of alcohol at this point in time also began to rise, as well as sales of snacks in pubs to make up for missing cigarettes.

Now, in recent years, healthist propaganda around the ‘rise’ in obesity has begun to sound ridiculous. (As the graph shows, obesity has plateau-d since 2011.) Even so, no one would argue cause and effect between the fall in smoking and the general rise in obesity – yet, at least. Nonetheless, it does appear to be a striking coincidence.

Not to the NHS, or Public Health England, though. They argue that the same policies that reduced smoking can be applied to sugar and alcohol, and will achieve the same effect; that, as a result, ultimately both smoking and obesity will be at record low levels.

The trouble with this thinking, however, is that it ignores new research about the obesity ‘epidemic’. (It now seems likely that the primary cause is, specifically, corn-syrup sugar in processed food, with alcohol and lack of exercise waddling up behind.) And it therefore ignores what the graph above suggests; that, as smokers have turned off one vice, they have sought to replace their nicotine hit with another source of endorphins and comfort: eating and drinking.

Surely this has to be taken into consideration? Human beings are essentially creatures of habit, and all seek comfort from time to time. If a habit that has brought them comfort in one instance is rendered unavailable, does it not stand to reason that they might seek out another?

The NHS plan, however, and the attitudes of Public Health England, do not allow for unforeseen consequences. They refuse to study seriously the effects of quitting on subjects, and plough on with the same old failed techniques. Smoking-style regulation is now on the cards for sugar and alcohol, with PHE now arguing for restrictions on marketing – and, eventually, plain and uniform packaging.

What will be the unforeseen consequences? Who knows? But we do know what has happened as result of the regulation on marketing and branding cigarettes. Illegal smoking is up. Counterfeit goods now make up almost a quarter of the market. Lost tax revenue across Europe now stands at a staggering €10bn.

Fewer people are smoking, but those that are risk far dirtier products, funding some very unscrupulous people. The US government has even branded the illegal tobacco trade ‘a threat to national security’. And when you have that kind of evidence, the Haslam Hypothesis of unforeseen consequences seems perfectly feasible.

As for the man himself , Shakespeare reports that Haslam gave up smoking ‘by mistake’ at Christmas, has been feeling ill ever since and intends to ‘get back into it’. Well, it’s that or a slice of gateau. As Eddie Izzard would say, cake or death….

by Julia Dixon