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 #longevity #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.Lower is better10
1Guinea 15
2Solomon Islands 26
3Kiribati 28
107UAE 715
108Namibia 740
109Papua New Guinea 826
110UK 827
111Sweden 831
112Laos 836
113Iran 869
114Thailand 895
115Turkmenistan 92511
116Chile 930
117Ireland 954
118Australia 956
119Mongolia 957
120Bahrain 969
121France 993
122Brunei1 023
World Avg 819
Compared to Europe
Pos.Smoking Rates (2014)
Higher is worse
Expectancy (2021)
Lower is worse

43Montenegro4 12576.3
42Belarus3 83172.4
41Macedonia2 73273.8
40Slovenia2 63780.7
39Belgium2 35381.9
38Luxembourg2 28482.6
37Bosnia & Herzegovina2 23375.3
36Czechia2 19477.7
35Azerbaijan2 11469.4
34Greece2 08680.1
33Austria1 98881.6
32Ukraine1 85471.6
31Estonia1 77577.1
30Hungary1 75974.5
29Croatia1 70977.6
28Cyprus1 68881.2
27Serbia1 64474.2
26Switzerland1 63484.0
25Romania1 62074.2
24Slovakia1 61874.9
23Turkey1 58176.0
22Armenia1 54572.0
21Bulgaria1 50571.8
20Germany1 48080.6
19Italy1 44382.9
18Poland1 39676.5
17Netherlands1 39681.7
16Georgia1 37871.7
15Denmark1 37881.4
14Malta1 26683.8
13Spain1 26583.0
12Albania1 17776.5
11Lithuania1 12473.7
10Moldova1 11468.8
9Portugal1 11381.0
8Finland1 08382.0
7Latvia1 04173.6
6France 99382.5
5Ireland 95482.0
4Sweden 83183.0
3UK 82780.7
2Norway 55683.2
1Iceland 55182.7
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 do13.

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)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