The number of smokers in England has reached its lowest level on record, with smokers now outnumbered two to one by people who have kicked the habit.

Figures from Public Health England (PHE) revealed that just 16.9% of adults now class themselves as smokers, down from 19.3% in 2012. Health campaigners credited the decline to measures such as price rises and plain packaging.

Retail Express spoke to Simon Clark, director of smokers’ group Forest, who suggested the findings might not be all that they seem.

RE: How accurate are PHE’s figures?

SC: It’s difficult to know how accurate these figures are. It suits the tobacco control lobby to claim that the anti-smoking measures of the last ten years have been a great success, but the jury is still out on most of them because the government has not commissioned an independent review.

Instead of reviewing the impact of the display ban, for example, ministers march on with new regulations like plain packaging.

There are undoubtedly a lot of shy or social smokers, who won’t admit smoking because of the negative connotations. Many of them enjoy smoking, usually in moderation, and they have no intention of giving up.

RE: What factors have led to the decline in smoking?

SC: The popularity of e-cigarettes since 2012 has coincided with a fairly significant decline in smoking rates, and that can’t be a coincidence. The great thing about e-cigarettes is that they offer a free market solution to the issue of smoking without prohibition or coercion; people would be mad not to welcome this.

Another significant factor in the recent reduction in smoking rates has been the tobacco escalator duty, which has forced the price of cigarettes to record levels.

There comes a point however – and we have almost certainly reached it – when increasing taxation to punitive levels is counter-productive, because it fuels the illicit trade and drives consumers to the black market.

RE: Do you think we’ll continue to see a decrease in the number of smokers in England?

SC: Smoking rates tend to fall, level off, then fall again. E-cigarettes have clearly had an impact, but that could wear off quite quickly.

The truth is that despite the well-known health risks, millions of adults enjoy smoking and don’t want to quit, even for a healthier alternative.

It’s also possible too that as restrictions on e-cigarettes kick in, their appeal to smokers will be reduced. If that was to happen, it would be a massive own goal on the part of Government.

Government cannot continue to punish adults for consuming a perfectly legitimate product; nor should they punish retailers. The prime minister recently pledged that her government will do everything it can to give us more control over our lives. If Theresa May is true to her word, that must include lifestyle choices such as eating, drinking and smoking.