New analysis by Cancer Research UK, released to coincide with World No Tobacco Day, estimated that tobacco caused the death of one person in the UK every 5 minutes.
Smoking remained the UK's biggest cause of cancer and death, according to the charity, and was responsible for an estimated 55,000 cancer deaths in the UK each year – more than a quarter (28%) of all cancer deaths.
Around 1 in 8 (13.3%) people aged 18 years and over smoked cigarettes, according to 2021 figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). That equated to around 6.6 million people in the population, which the ONS said was the "lowest proportion of current smokers since records began".
The highest proportion of current smokers in 2021 was in Scotland (14.8%), and the lowest was in England (13.0%), with Wales and Northern Ireland having 14.1% and 13.8% current smokers, respectively. Around a third more men than women smoked (15.1% versus 11.5%), with people aged 25-34 years twice as likely to smoke as those aged 65 years and over (15.8% versus 8.0%).
The statistic of one person dying every 5 minutes was based on 124,908 tobacco-attributable deaths in UK people of all ages in 2019, which the cancer intelligence team at Cancer Research UK calculated at one death every 4.21 minutes. The figure included all resulting disease types, the team pointed out.
For each day the Government failed to "stub out" smoking, hundreds of lives would be "needlessly lost", a spokesperson for the charity highlighted.
"These figures are shocking, and I can't help watching the clock," said Cancer Research UK chief executive, Michelle Mitchell. She added: "Since the UK Government's insufficient response to the Khan review last month, around 17,100 lives have been needlessly lost to tobacco across the UK. Over 7600 of these were due to cancer alone."
Targets Not on Target
Despite the governments of England, Scotland, and Wales setting out 'smokefree' targets – defined as less than 5% of the adult population smoking – they were "not on track" to meet them, Cancer Research UK pointed out. Northern Ireland was the only UK nation without a target, the charity said, and urged all political parties there to agree a new strategy to make Northern Ireland smokefree.
While the tobacco control measures announced last month for England were welcome, the charity said they were insufficient to reach ministers' own smokefree 2030 ambition. The charity warned that smoking rates needed to drop a "staggering" 70% faster than currently projected for that to happen.
Cancer Research UK called on the UK Government and devolved governments to avoid complacency and to do more to swiftly reduce smoking rates, citing public support for further tobacco control.
A major hurdle was that stop smoking services were "not universally available", and that public health campaigns continued to be "axed", largely due to successive funding cuts, according to the charity. Furthermore, the UK Government had pledged less than the minimum £125 million extra investment required in England alone, as identified by its own independent tobacco review, to fund the vital measures, the charity pointed out.
"Our supporters are telling us they want governments across the UK to urgently deliver the vital funding required to address the leading cause of cancer and save countless lives," stressed Ms Mitchell.
Smokefree Fund Needed
To try and achieve the necessary funding, the charity launched a petition, asking people to call on the Prime Minister to establish a 'Smokefree Fund' that would help pay for the cost of tobacco control, which currently was "seriously underfunded".
"Enough is enough", exclaimed Ms Mitchell, who urged the Prime Minister to take "bold and decisive" action to achieve a smokefree UK.
The recently announced levy on the gambling industry provided a precedent for a Smokefree Fund paid for by industry, explained the charity, and was proof that the UK Government could deliver on these types of measures. Most importantly, the public had already shown support for more Government intervention to reduce smoking rates.
This proof of concept demonstrated that investment could happen at "no cost to the taxpayer" if the UK Government made the tobacco industry foot the bill for the damage it caused, proposed Cancer Research UK.
"Taking action to help people who smoke quit and stop others from starting would help more people to live longer, more productive lives, free from cancer," said the Cancer Research UK spokesperson.
The charity added that taking action now would also enable the Prime Minister to deliver on one of his key pledges to cut NHS waiting lists, since in England alone, "one person is admitted to hospital every minute due to smoking", the charity highlighted.
Huge economic benefits were there for the taking too, given that smoking cost the UK public purse around £20.6 billion per year.
Hazel Cheeseman , deputy chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health told Medscape News UK: "Smoking is still the biggest preventable killer in the UK. Public support for government action on smoking is high but in recent years little has been done to secure the Government's ambition to make England smokefree by 2030."
Failure to meet this goal would mean "more preventable deaths, greater burden on the NHS, and massive avoidable costs to society," she warned, adding: "A proper, funded plan is needed to bring smoking rates down further and faster."