Smoking Rates in Great Britain Continue to Fall

Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics have shown that smoking rates have continued to fall in Great Britain, and smokers now consume fewer cigarettes per day.

In the mid-1970s, just under half of British adults smoked, and mean consumption was almost 17 cigarettes a day per smoker. Data just released by the Office for National Statistics(external link) shows that in 2014, only 19% of adults smoked, and their average consumption was 11.4 cigarettes a day.

Although smoking is still more prevalent in the youngest adults, the chart below, taken from the ONS report, shows a fall in the proportion of every age group who were current smokers since 2000.

Smoking prevalence by age group, Great Britain 2000-2014

Although many smokers quit, the change in current smoking rates is largely due to an increase in the proportion of adults who have never smoked. This has increased from 50% in 2000 to 59% in 2014, with a slight increase in never-smokers in all age groups.

Proportion of adults in Great Britain who have never smoked by age group, 2000-2014

What are the drivers of these changes, and how far can we expect smoking rates to fall? Cost is certainly an issue. Action for Smoking and Health (ASH) recently reported(external link) that the price of tobacco has increased by 87% between 2004 and 2014, making it 30% less affordable. This is largely due to the deliberate attempts of the government(external link) to reduce demand by increasing tax revenues on tobacco products. If we superimpose HMRC tax revenues from tobacco products(external link) over the same period, we can see that consumption has fallen as revenues have increased.

Smoking prevalence and tobacco tax revenues, Great Britain 2000-2014

The relationship between smoking and affordability is a complex one, however. As the ONS report shows, smoking remains more prevalent in lower socioeconomic groups, adults with lower educational achievements, and in those with lower annual incomes – in other words, those adults with least disposable income. This all suggests that tax duty will need to remain high for smoking rates to stay low (and that the recent trends in smoking rates could be reversed if tax levies are cut) but that there is likely to be a core group of smokers who will never be moved to quit by cost alone.

Smoking prevalence by annual income, Great Britain 2014

The use of e-cigarettes may also be contributing to the decline in smoking, but the evidence is still very unclear about how much impact this will have on smoking in the future. The ONS report shows that, although 15% of adults in Great Britain in 2014 had tried e-cigarettes, only 4% were current users, and smokers were more likely than ex-smokers or never-smokers to have either tried e-cigarettes, or to be current users.

E-cigarette use in smokers, ex-smokers and never-smokers, Great Britain 2014

Of note, 24% of adults aged 16 to 24 and 22% of those aged 25 to 34 had tried e-cigarettes at least once, compared with 15-16% of those aged 35 to 54. Yet only 1% of 16-24 year olds were current users, compared with 5% in each of the 25-34, 35-44 and 45-54 year age groups. This fits with the ONS report findings(external link) that 59% of e-cigarette users vape as an aid to stopping smoking, and 21% use them as they perceive the health risks to be lower than smoking tobacco. Although some never-smokers have tried e-cigarettes – 2% of women and 3% of men surveyed in the ONS report – and 1-2% had been users, none were current users, suggesting that the risks of creating nicotine dependence in non-smokers are low.

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