Does anti-tobacco propaganda work? Difficult to tell - though according to official statistics, among non-smokers almost half the men and more than a third of the women used to smoke, which may tell us something.

But this is not a column about the evils of tobacco or an assessment of health education.

Its purpose is to point out that these statistics - and many others - are now available online courtesy of the Office for National Statistics, whose new StatBase service was launched earlier this month. Its aim: to increase public awareness of government statistics, and to provide direct access to them.

StatBase, like football, is a game of two halves: StatSearch, a 'comprehensive catalogue' of all the censuses, surveys, analyses, products and services of the Government Statistical Service; and StatStore, which contains viewable or downloadable statistics on social, economic and socio-economic affairs.

There is at present a fairly limited range of real statistics in StatStore, and what there is will be of limited use. Waiting list figures, for example, are all very well - but they date from 1 April 1997, which as policy initiatives on these things go might as well be some time back in the pre-Cambrian era.

The government number crunchers do promise that they will be expanding and updating the system contents to provide 'fuller coverage' over the next few months, and they also offer software to use with their statistics which will allow users to 'explore, manipulate, chart and map the datasets'.

At present everything in StatBase is free - but don't expect it to last. The ONS says access to the 'more extensive data holdings' in StatStore will eventually be chargeable.

In the meantime, anyone wanting a copy of the StatBase information pack should fax their details to the ONS on 01633-812762.