The Human Truth Foundation

Smoking Rates in the UK
The Slow Victory of Public Health Over the Tobacco Industry

By Vexen Crabtree 2018


#health #smoking #UK #uk_health

Smoking is the UK's biggest cause of preventable death and 100,000 people die from related diseases every year1. The health of the nation affects everyone in the long-run2 - although in 2016/17 tax on cigarettes earned the government £7.6 billion3, in 2010 statistics showed the total cost to the economy of smoking (including NHS costs) was £13.7 billion4. 474,000 hospital admissions every year in England are directly due to smoking3.

But things are moving in the right direction. Since the 1970s, the government has enacted a stream of laws to improve public health: strong restrictions on advertising cigarettes, enforced health warnings on packs, increased costs, banned sports sponsorships and banned smoking in public enclosed spaces.3,5,6. Each of those measures was fought through long legal and PR campaigns by the tobacco industry5,6. But it is working, and smoking rates in Great Britain have declined from 50% in 1974 to 16% in 2016, and the spectre of childhood smoking has declined to 3%.3,7

In the UK 79% of smokers have tried to quit and failed, and 75% of smokers still want to quit8, but the addictive nature of the drug makes it difficult, as does the social contexts of its use.

1. UK Smoking Rates Compared to Other Countries9

#health #life_expectancy #smoking #UK

One table below shows the UK's position compared to the rest of the world. In general, richer countries smoke (much) more. And so the table below compares the UK to other European countries.

Compared to the World (2014)10
Pos.Higher is worse10
182Montenegro4 125
181Belarus3 831
180Lebanon3 023
113Iran 869
112Laos 836
111Sweden 831
110UK 827
109Papua New Guinea 826
108Namibia 740
107UAE 715
106Qatar 698
105Kyrgyzstan 683
104New Zealand 680
103Morocco 671
102Bangladesh 665
101Singapore 652
100Equatorial Guinea 649
99Cambodia 645
98Fiji 618
World Avg 819
Compared to Europe
Pos.Smoking Rates (2014)
Lower is better
Expectancy (2015)
Higher is better

1Iceland 55182.72
2Norway 55681.71
3UK 82780.85
4Sweden 83182.35
5Ireland 95481.05
6France 99382.36
7Latvia1 04174.34
8Finland1 08381.01
9Portugal1 11381.18
10Moldova1 11471.73
11Lithuania1 12473.50
12Albania1 17777.97
13Spain1 26582.77
14Malta1 26680.73
15Denmark1 37880.41
16Georgia1 37875.02
17Netherlands1 39681.71
18Poland1 39677.62
19Italy1 44383.34
20Germany1 48081.09
21Bulgaria1 50574.32
22Armenia1 54574.89
23Turkey1 58175.53
24Slovakia1 61876.41
25Romania1 62074.84
26Switzerland1 63483.13
27Serbia1 64475.05
28Cyprus1 68880.33
29Croatia1 70977.50
30Hungary1 75975.31
31Estonia1 77577.01
32Ukraine1 85471.13
33Austria1 98881.58
34Greece2 08681.07
35Azerbaijan2 11470.90
36Czechia2 19478.78
37Bosnia & Herzegovina2 23376.63
38Luxembourg2 28481.88
39Belgium2 35380.98
40Slovenia2 63780.58
41Macedonia2 73275.53
42Belarus3 83171.46
43Montenegro4 12576.40
Europe Avg1 64878.36

2. Combatting Smoking


"In the 60s, advertising cigarettes on TV was banned. In the 70s, the government introduced health warnings on packs. In the last 20 years, the battle has intensified"'5... increasing bans on various forms of advertising and the health warnings on packs got bigger and more gruesome. Sports sponsorship was banned.

In 2007, England followed the example of Eire and other countries, and banned smoking in public enclosed spaces6; it was the last country in the UK (following Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) to do so6. The government hoped that a side-effect of cleaner environments would be to help current smokers quit, "and perhaps prevent some people from starting"6.

Keeping places smoke free is just one of the public-health measures introduced in the last 50 years to reduce smoking. Others have included restrictions on tobacco advertising, warnings on cigarette packets, raising the age of sale to 18, and increasing the price through taxes. In 2011, the British government announced plans to ban the display of cigarettes in shops, and announced that they were considering a ban on any kind of branding, requiring plain generic packaging instead.

"Drugs" by David Nutt (2017)6

These measures and increased have meant that in the ten years since 2006, tobacco has become "27 per cent less affordable"3.

Every single one of these methods at reducing the harms of smoking have been fiercely resisted by tobacco companies5,6. But the result is a great improvement in public health.

Some newspaper outlets have claimed that measures such as banning public in enclosed public spaces were "controversial", even though 75% of adults supported the move6. Some of the same papers have ran campaigns against many public-health measures that aim to reduce the harm done by smoking.

UK smoking rates have declined from 50% in 1974 to 16% in 2016


4. The Broken Culture of Poverty and Poor Decision-Making

#health #smoking #trash_culture #UK #uk_health

Smoking is intertwined deeply with "trash culture". If you smoke, you are more likely to drink. If you smoke or drink, you are also more likely to do drugs. Such was the conclusion of the 1999 publication from the Office for National Statistics entitled "Smoking, drinking and drug use among young teenagers in 1998". A key factor of trash culture is that it is self-promoting. Once trash habits become accepted, they spread themselves.

Smoking is higher amongst those who are already in trouble: single mothers smoke at 55%, most homeless do and practically 100% of drug addicts do12.

Today only 15% of men in the highest professional classes smoke, but 42% of unskilled workers do.

The Economist (2007)13

As annual income increases prevalence of smoking generally decreases. In 2016 those with an annual income of less than £10,000 were almost twice as likely to smoke as those with an annual income of £40,000 or more.

"Briefing Paper: Statistics on Smoking" by Lydia Jackson (2017 Sep 14)3

Amongst young teenagers, "the likelihood of having ever used drugs is strongly related to smoking experience: 63% of regular smokers had used drugs, compared with only 1% of those who had never smoked". With drinking the statistics are also similar and cyclic: 44% of young teenagers who drink also get involved in drugs, compared with only 1% of children who don't drink. And importantly, in case it is doubted that all these factors propagate one another, "virtually no children who had never smoked or drunk had ever used drugs".

Parenting Issues: In 1991 in the UK 16% of 11-15 year-old children smoked, but by 2016 this had fallen to 3% (but still, that's far too many children)7; they are more likely to smoke if they live with others who do so3. There has also been improvement in how many mothers remain smokers whilst carrying a baby to term, falling to below 11% in 20163.

5. Further Topics

Current edition: 2018 May 26
Parent page: The Side Effects of Smoking. Which Countries Smoke Most?

All #tags used on this page - click for more:

#health #life_expectancy #smoking #trash_culture #UK #uk_health

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References: (What's this?)

The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See for some commentary on this source. A newspaper.

The Guardian. UK newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper.

BBC. The British Broadcasting Corporation.
(2014) Burning Desire: The Seduction of Smoking. A two-part television documentary first shown on 2014 May 29 featuring the veteran journalist and investigator, Peter Taylor.

Jackson, Lydia
(2017 Sep 14) Briefing Paper: Statistics on Smoking. UK Government House of Common briefing paper number CBP 7648.

Nutt, David. David Nutt was the UK's chairman of the Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs.
(2017) Drugs. Subtitled: "Without the Hot Air: Minimising the Harms of Legal and Illegal Drugs". Published by UIT. An e-book.

Public Health England (PHE)
(2013) Our priorities for 2013/14. Booklet published in 2013 April. PHE are the government body responsible for national health and wellbeing. PHE publication gateway number 2013007.

United Nations. (UN)
(2017) Human Development Report. Published by the UN Development Programme. Data for 2015. Available on


  1. Smoking rate in UK falls to second-lowest in Europe (2017 Jun 15). Date last accessed 2018 May 26. In UK newspaper The Guardian.^
  2. PHE (2013). p5.^
  3. Jackson (2017 Sep 14) .^^^
  4. Nutt (2017). Chapter 11 "Why was smoking banned in public places?" p193. Most other estimates are lower than this, but do not include economic costs of 'fag breaks' at work.^
  5. BBC (2014). Episode 1.^^
  6. Nutt (2017). Chapter 11 "Why was smoking banned in public places?" p192.^^
  7. (1) Adult data from Office for National Statistics (2017 Jun 15) Dataset: Adult Smoking Habits in Great Britain. Date last accessed 2018 May 26. By ONS. (2) Children data from Cancer Research UK on , accessed 2018 May 25.^^^
  8. Nutt (2017). Chapter 11 "Why was smoking banned in public places?" p199.^
  9. Added to this page on 2018 May 27.^
  10. Annual Cigarette Consumption Per Adult (age 15 and above) - compustible cigarettes. Euromonitor International (2014), via . Accessed 2017 Jun 20.^
  11. UN (2017). Table 1. Higher is better.^
  12. The Economist (2007 Jun 23). Article "Britain: Public health" p31.^
  13. The Economist (2007 Jun 23) Article "Britain: Public health" p31.^

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