Skip to main content
Press Release

ASH at 50: Nearly 8 million lives in the UK lost due to tobacco since 1971

14 Dec 2021

A new analysis to mark the 50th anniversary of ASH finds that smoking killed nearly 8 million people in the UK over the last 50 years with an estimated 2 million more expected to die in the next 20 years without radical changes to smoking rates.[1]

The modelling was by Professor Sir Richard Peto, world renowned epidemiologist and statistician, who worked with Sir Richard Doll on the health risks of smoking. In the 1950s Doll and Sir Austin Bradford Hill had established the full impact of smoking on the health of the population, and following Hill’s retirement Peto joined Doll to continue this research. Their work showed that in the 1970s the UK had the worst death rate from smoking in the world, with half of male deaths in middle age and a quarter of those among women caused by smoking.

If the same proportion of adults smoked today as in 1971 there would be an additional 18 million smokers in the UK today, losing on average 10 years life expectancy because of their addiction.[2]

The charity was established by the Royal College of Physicians in 1971 following their landmark 1962 report recommending urgent government action to curb the harms from smoking.[3] When no action was taken the College set up ASH with a mission to campaign for change. Five decades on, the calls to action, which once appeared radical, have largely been implemented thanks to the work of ASH working with the RCP and others to transform British society. In addition, the current Government has pledged to make smoking obsolete and England ‘smokefree’ by 2030. [4]

However, given current trends in smoking we are on course to miss the 2030 target by seven years, and more than twice that for the most deprived smokers.[5]

Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of ASH since 2003:

“Government knew about the terrible harms from smoking in the 1950s but it took the tireless efforts of campaigners to bring about change. Today, we have a Government with a vision to make smoking obsolete, but vision alone is not enough. Two years ago the Government committed to ‘bold action’ to ‘finish the job’, including the option of a ‘polluter pays’ levy on the tobacco industry, when will it deliver on this promise?”

To mark their 50th anniversary, ASH has launched an online commemoration of those who have lost their lives to smoking. People can add their tributes to loved ones here. A new report has been published and is available here.

Cllr Alison Griffiths, Surrey County Councillor and former smoker:

“This year I was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I started smoking at 12 and I was 45 when I was diagnosed and finally stopped. Finding out my life is coming to an end has been unbelievably tough, not just for me but my family too.

I share our Government’s vision of a country without smoking and I urge them from the bottom of my heart to take the action needed to make it happen. Every day we wait more children are starting and I know how hard it is to stop, once you’ve started. My grandchildren deserve a future without smoking.

I urge all smokers to seriously consider quitting before it’s just too late, you think it will never happen to you, but it can and it does, unfortunately I am living proof.”

Dr Andrew Goddard, President of the Royal College of Physicians:

“When the RCP had the vision to set up ASH 50 years ago, my predecessors knew the scale of the challenge to reduce death and disease from smoking, against the all-pervasive influence of the tobacco industry and its cosy relationship with government at the time.

ASH has proved itself over and over again as an effective organisation, not just for its own work, but its vital role in supporting and maintaining the wider tobacco alliances of like-minded bodies, coordinating campaigning efforts to make us all work better together.

There is still much work to do, particularly in the field of health inequalities, and it is time for the government, the NHS and the new public health structures to intensify their efforts in this area to speed up the pace of change. Until we have a smokefree society, we will still need ASH, and I am proud to work alongside them to campaign until that day.”


Notes to the Editor

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.

Everything we do at the Royal College of Physicians is aimed at improving patient care and reducing illness. We are patient centred and clinically led, driving improvement in the diagnosis of disease, the care of individual patients and the health of the whole population, both in the UK and around the world. Our 40,000 members work in hospitals and the community across 30 different medical specialties and range from medical students to retired doctors. The RCP is the oldest Royal medical college in England.

For interviews and more information contact


[1] Peto R and Pan H. UK deaths from smoking 1971 to 2019. University of Oxford. November 2021

[2] Analysis undertaken by ASH using ONS data on smoking rates for 16+ for GB population for 1971 and 2019 and UK 16+ population data for 2020

[3] Royal College of Physicians. Smoking and Health. 1962

[4] Department of Health and Social Care. Advancing our health: Prevention in the 2020s. July 2019

[5] Cancer Intelligence Team, Cancer Research UK. Smoking prevalence projections for England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, based on data to 2018/19. Published February 2020.