Are mobile phones driving down teenage smoking?

Friday 03 November 2000

Embargo 00:01 – Friday 3rd November 2000

The incredible rise in use of mobile phones may be a key factor in the decline in teenage smoking since 1996.  A letter in today’s British Medical Journal suggests that mobile phones successfully compete with cigarettes to meet certain important needs of teenagers. Between 1996 and 1999 teenage (age 15) smoking fell from 30% to 23% [see ONS data below].  By August 2000 mobile phone ownership among 15-17 year olds had reached 70%. [See MORI’s Technology Tracker data below].  The fall in teenage smoking has already met government targets for 2010! [See below].

Clive Bates, Director of ASH and co-author of the letter argues:

“The trends for mobiles and for teenage smoking are very striking, but our main observation is just how closely mobiles overlap with cigarettes in what they do for teenagers.  It’s more than just something to do with the hands, mobiles are smart, chic and adult. They allow individuality and self-image to be projected through choice of brand and model, and, like cigarettes, they are important in socialising. If their friends are using mobile phones to organise social life on the move, then for some kids a mobile is going to be seen as essential ­ effectively a peer group pressure.

“With the pay-as-you-go mobile phones young people are even spending their money in the same way and in the same places as they would purchase cigarettes. Some wont be able to afford to do both, and others might get all they want from owning a mobile, and for them smoking might become irrelevant.

Co-author Anne Charlton, Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester and specialist in children’s perceptions of advertising, noted the similarities between mobile marketing and tobacco advertising.

“Mobile phones are marketed in a very similar way to cigarettes with a subtle pitch that focuses on self-image, identity and confidence.  The mobile makers aren’t doing anything wrong, but their advertising is very effective and seductive.

“If the bright high-tech world of the mobile phone has become important for young people, it might be that smoking will be seen as ‘old technology’.  These very different products are effectively in competition to give teenagers what they want as they become young adults.

ASH warned about lazy comparisons between the health risks of smoking and the ongoing concern about mobile phones [see information on health controversy surrounding mobiles below].

“It’s much too simplistic to compare the health risks of smoking with mobile phones.  When any new technology is introduced on a wide scale, society should always be on its guard for the unexpected and unwanted side-effects, but we know for sure that smoking kills 120,000 people per year and nothing else comes close to that.”

There was a dramatic rise in mobile phone ownership among 15-17 year olds between the middle of 1999 and beginning of 2000.  This leads to the intriguing prospect that smoking may fall further in 2000 when the teenage statistics are published.

Commenting on possibility of continuing reductions in teenage smoking, Clive Bates said:

“We don’t yet know what has happened to teenage smoking in 2000, but if the decline in teenage smoking is linked to rising mobile phone ownership, then we might hope for a continuing reduction in smoking.  How to persuade kids not to smoke has always been the Holy Grail of health promotion campaigners, and it’s just possible that the mobile phone industry has inadvertently stumbled across something that works.”

ASH emphasised that this is only a hypothesis at this stage.

“We can’t prove a causal link between the rise of the mobile and the fall of smoking, but given the overlap between mobiles and cigarettes in what they mean to teenagers, the theory is very plausible.  More research and observation should prove or debunk the idea.”


Clive Bates (ASH): +44 (0)20 7739 5902 (office) +44 (0)468 791237 (mobile)

Amanda Sandford (ASH) +44(0)20 7739 5902

Michele Corrado (MORI) +44(0)20 7928 5955

Professor Anne Charlton ­ contact via ASH.

Professor Anne Charlton is funded by the Cancer Research Campaign


Other resources

No Smoking Day press release  (the charity that runs the annual No Smoking Day)

ASH focus group research on teenage smoking attitudes (includes mobile phones)


Mobile phone ownership UK: MORI’s Technology Tracker (MORI)


Jan-97 Jun-97 Jan-98 Jun-98 Jan-99 Jun-99 Jan-00 Jun-00 Aug-00
15-24 15% 11% 15% 19% 32% 38% 60% 69% 73%
15-17 NA NA NA NA 23% 28% 60% 70% 70%

NA ­ not available


Smoking statistics

Teenage smoking statistics for England – Office of National Statistics (2000) [PDF]

Percentage of school pupils who are regular smokers (at least one cigarette per week on average)

Age 15 1982 1984 1986 1988 1990 1992 1994 1996 1998 1999
Boys 24 28 18 17 25 21 26 28 19 21
Girls 25 28 27 22 25 25 30 33 29 25
All 25 28 22 20 25 23 28 30 24 23


Government targets

UK Government targets for teenage smoking prevalence established in the White Paper, Smoking Kills,  The target is to reduce smoking among 11-15 year olds from 13% in 1996 to 11% in 2005 and 9% by 2010.  The target for 2010 has already been reached (if teenage smoking does not rise again.)


Mobile Phones and Health – links