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England's Smoke Free Target 'Almost a Decade Behind Schedule'

The Government's tobacco control plan aimed at making England smoke free by the end of the decade has fallen almost 10 years behind schedule, according to a leading cancer charity.

Smoking rates have declined over recent years, reducing from 19.8% of adults in England in 2011 to 13% in 2021, meaning that around 5.4 million people still smoke.

In 2019, the Government set an objective for England to be smoke free by 2030, which was defined as bringing the proportion of smokers down to 5% or less of the population. But earlier this year, an independent review, led by Dr Javed Khan, found that without further measures, England would miss that smoke free target by 7 years.

A new analysis by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) said that a slowdown in progress meant that on current trends, the smoke free target would not be achieved until 2039.

New Smoking Action Plan Needed

The charity criticised the Government for failing to respond to recommendations for accelerating progress make by the Khan review, and called on England's Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, to publish a new plan for tobacco control. It said Mr Barclay had demonstrated support for decreasing the harm caused by smoking when he voted in favour of the 2015 ban on smoking in cars when children were passengers, and in backing the introduction of standard tobacco packaging in 2016.

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of CRUK, said: "We urge Steve Barclay to continue his legacy of being bold with tobacco control to reduce the number of people getting and dying of smoking related cancers, relieve the pressure on the NHS, and save the country billions of pounds each year."

The charity said it remained concerned that although the proportion of smokers had fallen over time, smoking rates remained higher compared with the national average in young people aged between 18 and 21, and in the most deprived communities compared with the least deprived. There were almost twice as many cancer cases attributed to smoking in the poorest areas of the country compared with the wealthiest, it said.

Tackling Young Smokers

Key actions needed, according to CRUK, were measures to prevent young people from smoking, which should include a consultation on raising the legal age for buying cigarettes, and increasing funding for quit smoking services, with the money diverted from tobacco firm profits if necessary.

Its chief clinician, Prof Charles Swanton, said: "Quitting smoking is one of the most popular New Year's resolutions. But people are rarely successful on their own – they need support and the right tools to help them quit. Despite this, budgets for stop smoking services have been repeatedly cut, and access varies greatly across the country. 

"If the Government is serious about a smokefree England, action to create an environment that makes it easier for people to live healthy lives will be key. It must take on board the recommendations from the Khan review and publish a plan to stop people from ever starting to smoke and help people quit."

The Khan review urged the Government to increase the age of sale of tobacco products from 18, by one year, every year "until no one can buy a tobacco product", and to devote additional funding of £125 million each year in smoke free policies, with a 'make the polluter pay' tobacco industry levy introduced if the money could not be found. It also called for the NHS to promote stop smoking advice and support at every interaction with patients, as well as promoting vaping as an alternative to smoking.

It is estimated that around 500,000 hospital admissions every year are attributable to the harm caused by tobacco, and that smoking costs the NHS £2.4 billion and social care £1.19 billion each year, CRUK said.

Next Steps 'in Due Course'

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "The Government remains committed to its Smoke free ambition by 2030, and the action we are taking means smoking rates in England are at an all-time low.

"We continue to enforce strong regulations around the sale of cigarettes which help smokers to quit and protect future generations from starting this lethal addiction.

"We are currently considering the wide range of recommendations set out in the Khan Review and how best to take these forward – with next steps to be set out in due course."