New data reveals a significant decline in number of smokers over last five years, while the daily number of cigarettes consumed has also fallen
Half of the 2.3 million people who were users of e-cigarettes said they were doing it to quit smoking. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA
The number of smokers in Britain has reached its lowest point since records began in 1974, according to new data, while more than a million people say they are using e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking.
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that 17.2% of adults in the UK smoked in 2015, down from 20.1% in 2010.
Smoking levels are highest in Scotland, at 19.1%, followed by Northern Ireland, where it is 19%, Wales on 18.1% and England on 16.9%. The numbers have been dropping fastest in recent years in Scotland and Wales. Among local authorities, Blackpool is the only one to feature consistently in the 10 heaviest smoking areas between 2012 and 2015. In 2015, 25.3% of adults in Blackpool smoked.
The data also shows that 2.3 million people were e-cigarette users in England, Scotland and Wales in 2015, about 4% of the population. Their survey also shows that 4 million more people describe themselves as former e-cigarette users. A further 2.6 million say they have tried them but not gone on to use them regularly.
Half of the 2.3 million who were current users of e-cigarettes at the time of the survey said they were doing it to quit smoking. A further 22% said they were vaping because it was less harmful than smoking. Only 10% said they chose to vape because it was cheaper than buying cigarettes. Others – 9% – said they used e-cigarettes mainly because they were permitted indoors.
The figures will bolster the arguments of those who believe e-cigarettes have a major role to play in ending the tobacco epidemic. The issue has been hugely controversial among public health doctors and campaigners, some of whom consider e-cigarettes to be a stalking horse for the tobacco industry which hopes to make smoking acceptable again and has invested in vaping.
The World Health Organisation has expressed concern over e-cigarettes, but Public Health England has said vaping may be 95% safer than smoking tobacco.
Half of current smokers say they have tried e-cigarettes, and 14.4% of current smokers also vape.
Some of the statistics suggest that it is often the heavier smokers who turn to e-cigarettes. Those who also vape smoke marginally more cigarettes per day on average than those who do not – 11.8 versus 11.3. Smokers who have given up on e-cigarettes smoke 12.2 per day versus 10.6 among those who have never used an e-cigarette. Smokers who have children at home are also more inclined to use e-cigarettes.
The ONS vaping data is from the opinions and lifestyle survey 2014-15 and relate just to Great Britain. The ONS figures on general smoking trends include northern Ireland.
Men are more likely to smoke – 19.3% do, compared with 15.3% of women. Smoking is most common in the 25-34 age group, where 23% smoked in 2015. It is least common in the over-65s, among whom 8.8% smoke. But the biggest decline since 2010 has been among the 18-24 year-olds, where it has dropped five percentage points to 20.7% in five years.
Figures for Great Britain also show that smokers have been cutting back on the numbers of cigarettes they consume. Average consumption is down to 11.3 cigarettes per day, the lowest number since 1974.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH said: “The decline in smoking is very encouraging and shows that strong tobacco control measures are working. However, the government can’t leave it to individual smokers to try to quit on their own. If the downward trend is to continue we urgently need a new tobacco control plan for England, and proper funding for public health and for mass media campaigns. That’s essential if the prime minister is to live up to her promise to tackle health and social inequality.”
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