In Conversation with Matt Ridley

Posted 29th July 2020 by Dave Cross
Viscount Ridley has spoken up for vaping and a tobacco harm reduction approach many times in and outside the House of Lords. He is a prolific and successful author, writing on subjects as diverse as science, prosperity, and innovation. The Institute of Economic Affairs’ (IEA) Book Club hosted a webcast where Matt Ridley, discussed “How innovation works".

In 2016, Viscount Ridley launched a spirited attack on the sections of the Tobacco Products Directive where it proposed to regulate vaping [link], “this directive scores an own-goal by bringing in measures that would discourage the take-up of vaping, and thereby drive people back to cigarettes or to prevent them quitting.”

At the 2018 Global Forum for Nicotine, Ridley told the audience, “We should treat vaping in the same way that we treat access to mobile phones. The best way to get people to give up smoking is to innovate with technology. Vaping is a motorway OUT of smoking!” It was a theme he continued in an article published shortly afterwards by The Times.

The theme for his talk came from his latest book, “How Innovation Works, And Why It Flourishes In Freedom”. In turn, Ridley attributes the book to a previous talk he gave on innovation to the IEA, “it’s basically a book of stories, of things that changed the world and how they came about.”

Just telling the stories, common themes began to emerge. How come this happens to us and not rabbits or rocks? What makes some innovation progress faster than others? Innovation is how we’ll solve the pandemic; it’s how we’ll get back to prosperity.”

He says that innovation is more than just invention: “It’s about people who took ideas and turned them into something practical, affordable and available. There’s a lot of work involved in providing people with something they want.”


He recounted a tale told by Charles Townes, inventor of the laser, about a beaver and rabbit looking at the Hoover Dam and the beaver says, “No, it’s not mine, but it is based on one of my ideas”. It was to highlight Ridley’s belief that innovation is an evolutionary process whereby people improve upon ideas that already exist. The example he gave was of the development of the plane, and that the one that whisks you to a holiday destination hasn’t been designed from scratch – it relies on the failure of other ideas.

Square windows turned out to be a really bad idea, they caused crashes – natural selection has worked.”

He said that innovation likes fragmented government, it could be infinite, and it flourishes in freedom – such as the freedom that existed for Hon Lik when he invented the first practical electronic cigarette.

Orville Wright did not have a pilot’s licence

He was asked, “How can the UK lead the world in harm reduction innovation?”

Ridley smiled.

We pioneered it in the 80s during the HIV crisis. In most of the world people were told ‘you are evil’, but Norman Fowler gave out clean needles for free. Harm reduction really does work, ‘it’s not safe, but this is less dangerous’.”

Vampire Vape

The same people were still in the civil service when vaping came along and were much more influential in this country to nudge vaping along in the beginning. If it could displace smoking it could save lives, and Cameron was advised to reject the ‘public health nannies’, which contrasts sharply with the United States. We focussed on making sure vaping is safe not discouraged. Britain stole a march on the rest of the world.”

“It was a time of great innovation; the technology, the vape shops, from things that looked like cigarettes to things that didn’t. Because it isn’t 100% safe means the Daily Mail will continue to be tiresome on the subject.”


  • How Innovation Works” on Amazon – [link]
  • The Institute of Economic Affairs – [link]

 Dave Cross
Article by Dave Cross
Freelance writer, physicist, karateka, dog walker