Smoke-free generation ‘in sight’ as numbers of smokers drop dramatically

The health risks associated with tobacco smoking are well documented and are prevalent in the public conscience. Now, health experts are predicting that future generations will be “smoke-free” after numbers of smokers dropped dramatically.

Since 2011, there has been a drop of 1.8 million smokers, leaving numbers at 5.9 million In England. These figures were released by Public Health England and the Office for National Statistics. It is now estimated that one in seven adults smoke tobacco with one in five people smoking tobacco in 2011.

Woman splitting cigarette in half to throw away.Gorynvd | Shutterstock

It isn't just England that is experiencing a dramatic drop in the number of smokers. In Scotland, numbers dropped from 938,000 to 678,000. Wales also saw a significant decrease in the number of smokers from 518,000 to 383,000, and Northern Ireland reported numbers down from 249,000 to 213,000 over the same seven-year period.

Chief executive of Public Health England described smoking as the nation’s “biggest killer” and enthused, “smoking in England is in terminal decline, with the lowest number of smokers ever and a smoke-free generation now in sight.”

It’s believed that the use of plain green packaging and storing cigarettes behind shutters in shops to reduce visibility is partly responsible for the reduction in people smoking.

However, the number of British people using e-cigarettes has increased substantially by 70% in only four years, showing that nicotine intake is still prevalent across the UK.

It’s encouraging to see that smoking rates in England have slightly dropped. However, these figures show there’s still millions of smokers who aren’t accessing vital NHS stop smoking support, which we know can make all the difference in quitting.”

Dr. Penny Woods, CEO, British Lung Foundation

Numbers from the Office for National Statistics show that Hull in England has the highest number of people considering themselves to be smokers at 26.1 percent. Chiltern holds the lowest percentage of smokers at 7.1 percent.

It is the population in poorer areas of the country that are more likely to be smokers and die as a result of smoking tobacco. Blackpool and Sunderland had the highest rates of hospital admissions related to smoking at 2,900 per 100,000 people.

In contrast, Wokingham had just 721 hospital admissions related to smoking per 100,000 people.

Deborah Arnott, the chief executive of the charity Action on Smoking addressed this concerning imbalance between people receiving high- and low-incomes.

“Higher smoking rates are responsible for half the difference in life expectancy between rich and poor. Eradicating the difference in smoking rates is the single most important step towards ending the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others,” she said.

Over-65s have shown the biggest reduction in smoking rates

It wasn’t only geographical location that highlighted differences in the number of smokers. Age groups also showed very different smoking habits with one in five 25 to 34-year-olds smoking, but only one in thirteen over-65s reporting a smoking habit.

“Improved health for individuals and their families” was just one of the benefits Dr. Caitlin Notley from the University of East Anglia’s medical school described relating to stopping smoking.

“Hidden point of sales displays, plain packaging, and encouraging smokers to switch to vaping as a less harmful alternative to smoking, have all no doubt played important roles in our declining rates of tobacco smoking,” she continued.

“In England, our public health approach is really world-leading in supporting people to quit smoking and choose less harmful alternatives. However, there is still lots to be done to meet the national ambition of reducing smoking prevalence to 12 percent or less.”

Many are switching to e-cigarettes, or ‘vaping’

Vaping is being pushed as the healthier alternative to smoking, its risks are still not well understood, although vaping doesn’t expose users to carbon monoxide or tar. 35 to 49 year-olds are most likely to take up vaping with many people using vaping as a method to help them quit smoking altogether.

“Vaping remains the most popular way for smokers to quit and already this year several major studies have found that it is twice as effective as nicotine replacement therapy,” Martin Dockrell, Public Health England’s (PHE) tobacco control lead explained. He continued, “It’s unsurprising that more smokers are using e-cigarettes to quit and stay quit.

This data shows that vaping in England remains a route out of smoking, with quitting tobacco the most common reason for adult e-cigarette use. While not completely risk-free, there is now a strong international consensus that vaping is far less harmful than smoking.”

Martin Dockrell, PHE

25 percent of children aged 11 to 15 have tried e-cigarettes, and figures for 2016 showed that only six percent of school children aged 11 to 15 said they were current smokers. In 1996, the percentage stood at 22 percent.

However, it is possible that these statistics may not be entirely reflective of smoking habits across the country, as many people are not honest with doctors and other health professionals about their smoking habits.

Second-hand smoke remains a concern

While the health risks from smoking directly are numerous, isn't only the act of smoking itself that poses health risks; children from no income households are often employed in tobacco farming, which exposes them to nicotine from the tobacco plant that is absorbed through the skin.

Called “green tobacco sickness”, a form of nicotine poisoning, children exposed to nicotine through the handling of wet tobacco leaves can experience symptoms ranging from nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and severe weakness. Respiratory problems can also arise due to nicotine poisoning.

According to the World Health Organization, tobacco use kills over 8 million people every year. Out of these deaths, approximately 7 million people die from direct use of tobacco and approximately 1.2 million people die as a result of exposure to second-hand smoke. It is estimated that there are 1.1 billion smokers worldwide.

With tax increases on tobacco products, bans on advertisements promoting smoking, picture warnings on cigarette packets and schemes and initiatives helping smokers to quit, a smoke-free generation in the future could become a reality, although it is no easy reality to achieve with illegal tobacco trades still rife in society and even in the tobacco industry itself.

Lois Zoppi

Written by

Lois Zoppi

Lois is a freelance copywriter based in the UK. She graduated from the University of Sussex with a BA in Media Practice, having specialized in screenwriting. She maintains a focus on anxiety disorders and depression and aims to explore other areas of mental health including dissociative disorders such as maladaptive daydreaming.


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