Media advisory: Fall in smoking rates great news but hundreds of children still start smoking every day

15 June 2017

Smoking rates in England fell to a record low last year, according to new figures from the NHS Health and Social Care Information Centre published today. [1] Across England, about one in twelve smokers quit during 2016: the percentage of people in England aged above 18 who were smokers in 2016 is 15.5% compared to 16.9% in 2015, a fall of 1.4 percentage points. This is the largest annual fall in the last 40 years. Of particular note is the large decline among young people with smoking rates falling 6.5% among 18-24 year olds since 2010.

However, despite this decline, smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death [1] and every day since the last tobacco control plan expired on 31st December 2015, hundreds of under 16s have started smoking [2]. Smoking is also responsible for half the difference in life expectancy between rich and poor [3] and worryingly 1 in 4 of people in routine and manual occupations continue to smoke compared to around 1 in 10 people in managerial occupations.

There is also a concerning trend in other data published today on the rates of women smoking while pregnant. These have remained almost unchanged in 2016/17 at 10.5% compared to 10.6% in 2015/16 [4] this is despite good progress reducing rates over previous years. To tackle this public health epidemic ASH is calling on the Government to publish the new Tobacco Control Plan with tough new targets and a commitment to reducing inequalities without further delay.

ASH Chief Executive Deborah Arnott said:

“One in two lifetime smokers will die from smoking related disease, so a fall in smoking rates of this scale will save many thousands of lives in years to come. This proves that tobacco control policies work, when they are part of a comprehensive strategy and are properly funded.

 “But we must not stop now. Every day since the last tobacco control plan expired on 31st December 2015, hundreds of under 16s have started smoking. On 1 July 2007 it will be the 10th anniversary of the implementation of smokefree legislation in England – a worthy date for publication of the next Tobacco Control Plan, with a commitment to delivering a smokefree future for our children.”

 The fall in smoking rates follows the implementation of a well-funded and comprehensive strategy, which ranked the UK top in Europe this year for implementation of tobacco control policies, according to criteria set by the World Bank. [5] Policies which helped put the UK at the top and have supported declines in prevalence include:

  • Annual increases in tobacco taxes above inflation to reduce affordability (there has been a commitment to an annual increase of 2% above inflation since 2011)
  • The continuing impact of the ban on smoking in enclosed public places; the complete ban on advertising, promotion and sponsorship; and the requirement to put tobacco out of sight in shops
  • The availability of stop smoking services for smokers, with nicotine replacement products available on prescription (although these are now facing significant cuts following the devolution of public health to local government and austerity grant settlements for local councils [6])
  • A shift to the use of electronic cigarettes by current smokers; survey figures released by ASH last month estimated that there are now 2.9 million vapers across the UK, of whom 1.5 million no longer smoke at all [7]
  • The introduction of standardised packaging for tobacco products (the figures published today for 2016 include the period since May 2016 in which standardized packs were gradually being introduced by retailers). 


Notes and Links:

Action on Smoking and Health is a health charity working to eliminate the harm caused by tobacco use. For more information see:

ASH receives funding for its programme of work from Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation.

ASH staff are available for interview and for more information. Please contact ASH on 020 7404 0242 or out of hours Hazel Cheeseman on 07754 358 593.


[1]        Statistics on smoking in England: NHS Digital

[2]        Hopkinson, NS., Lester-George, A., Ormiston-Smith, N., Cox, A. & Arnott, D. Child uptake of smoking by area across the UK. Thorax 2013. doi:10.1136/thoraxjnl-2013-204379

[3]        See ASH Briefing on Health Inequalities

[4]        Women smoking at time of delivery:

2016/17                10.5%

2015/16:               10.6%

2014/15:               11.4%

2013/14:               12.0%

2012/13:               12.7%

[5]        The Tobacco Control Scale website was launched at the 7th European Conference on Tobacco or Health 2017 as a joint initiative of the Association of European Cancer Leagues and the Tobacco Control Unit of the Catalan Institute of Oncology, a WHO Collaborating Center for Tobacco Control.

[6]        Report on local tobacco control published by ASH November 2016

[7]        Large national survey finds 2.9 million people now vape in Britain: For the first time over half don’t smoke: ASH media release 8 May 2017