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Popularity of smoking now in sharp decline

12:00am & Health

It has taken years, even generations, and countless hard-hitting public awareness campaigns, but it seems the message that smoking is seriously bad for your health is finally getting through.

Latest Government figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that all age groups in the UK are now smoking less, but crucially the biggest decrease is among 18 to 24-year-olds.

The figures for 2015 – the latest available – show that one in five (20.7%) of 18 to 24-year-olds is a smoker, compared to one in four (25.8%) in the figures for 2010. The new figures also show that around 70% of 16 to 24-year-olds have never started smoking cigarettes at all, up from only 46% in 1974 when the records began.

It suggests that far fewer young people today see smoking as a rite of passage, something to mark them out as grown up, glamorous or fashionable. Even among the age group traditionally most likely to smoke, those aged 24 to 35, the new figures show that around 60% have never picked up the habit, compared to just 35% in 1974.

For today’s younger generations, smoking might have finally lost its allure and potentially fatal temptation. Health professionals welcome these figures as very encouraging, because it is far better to dissuade people from taking up smoking in the first place than to persuade them, or even enable them, to give up once they are hooked.

In decades past, celebrities who smoked were seen as ‘cool’ and glamorous, but today it is more likely for celebrities to be ‘caught on camera’ having a furtive smoke and then be publicly criticised as bad role models. Smoking has fallen out of fashion and perhaps, after a century, the tide of public opinion is turning against tobacco?

There are many factors which could have caused more people to quit smoking and fewer to start. Tough legislation on tobacco advertising means cigarettes can no longer be portrayed as glamorous and sexy, or even linked with sports and other pastimes, such as motor racing, which suggest a lifestyle people might aspire to. At the same time, shops cannot put cigarettes and other tobacco product on open display, and they must be sold in strictly regulated plain packaging which carries stark health warnings.

Banning smoking in most public places, such as pubs, clubs and workplaces, has also undoubtedly had a profound effect, with smokers ‘banished’ to huddle in often unwelcoming ‘smoking shelters’ when they want to indulge. At the same time, increasing taxation on tobacco has made the habit unaffordable for many, especially younger people with less disposable income. A pack of 20 cigarettes now costs an average of £9.60 compared to £1.43 in 1987 (the equivalent of £3.69 today, accounting for inflation but not tax increases). Under current Government tax proposals, a pack of 20 could cost £15 by 2020.

In tandem with these financial and social disincentives to smoke, there have been more incentives to quit in the shape of free and widely available support from the NHS. It has developed several schemes designed to provide practical support to smokers in their efforts to quit the habit, including free nicotine patches and other alternatives designed to ween people off tobacco.

Undoubtedly the most significant alternative in recent years has been the rise of ‘vaping’ – using hand-held electronic devices (sometimes called e-cigarettes) which allow users to inhale flavoured vapour rather than more harmful tobacco smoke. An estimated 2.3 million people in the UK are now ‘vapers’, with the figure growing daily. There is some concern that young people could be drawn into vaping because of its ‘trendiness’ and the fruit or candy-flavoured vaping liquids available, but most research suggests the vast majority of vapers are ex-smokers or those trying to quit.

Since vaping is still quite new, much more research is needed on its possible adverse effects on health, but it appears to be far less harmful than the extremely well-documented destructive effects of highly toxic tobacco smoke. It could well be ‘the lesser of two evils’.

Meanwhile, anti-smoking campaigners have welcomed the latest ONS figures as a positive indication that smoking continues to undergo a steep decline in popularity. One which can only be beneficial to the nation’s health.

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