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UK Smoking Rate Hits Historic Low

The proportion of adults in the UK who smoke dropped to a record low in 2022, new figures showed.

The finding comes in an Office for National Statistics (ONS) report that also detailed demographic breakdowns, changes over time, and use of e-cigarettes. 

It found that last year, around one in eight (12.9%) of people aged 18 years and over in the UK smoked cigarettes – the equivalent of around 6.4 million people. "This is the lowest proportion of current smokers since data collection for the Annual Population Survey (APS) began in 2011 and is consistent with the continuing trend towards a decline in smoking prevalence over recent years," the ONS said.

The proportion of current smokers in the UK was down from 13.3% in 2021, and down 7.3% from 2011, when around one in five (20.2%) of the population smoked.

Asked to comment for Medscape News UK , ASH chief executive Deborah Arnott stressed that the latest figures were a "wake-up call" because although smoking rates were falling, they were not doing so "nearly fast enough".

More Men Than Women Still Smoke

Of the UK's four constituent countries, the lowest proportion of current smokers was in England, where 12.7% of the population smoked. The proportion of current smokers in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland was very similar – 14.1 %, 14.0%, and 13.9%, respectively.

What hadn't changed since records began was that more men than women smoked – 14.6% versus 11.2% in 2022. "This difference has been consistent since 2011," according to the ONS.

Twice as many people aged 25 to 34 years as those aged 65 years and over currently smoked – 16.3% versus 8.3%. Statisticians noted that this was a rise in smoking prevalence in the younger age category from the 15.8% recorded in 2021.

"Across time, the largest reduction in smoking prevalence has been among those aged 18 to 24 years," highlighted the ONS, where the proportion of smokers had more than halved – 25.7% in 2011 compared with 11.6% in 2022.

Support For Smokers "Must Be Stepped Up"

In 2022, smoking prevalence continued to be higher in routine and manual occupations than in managerial and professional occupations, according to the figures. Almost one in four (22.8%) in a "routine and manual" socio-economic classification were current smokers, which was almost three times the number in "managerial and professional occupations" (8.3%). This followed the "same trend" since data collection began in 2014, the ONS underlined.

In 2022, 20.5% of those defined as unemployed were smokers, compared with those in paid employment (12.7%), and those classed economically inactive (12.7%).

Ms Arnott commented: "Financial stress and poor mental health are on the rise, which we know makes it harder for smokers to quit. Initiatives like 'Swap to Stop' are helpful but they're nowhere near enough."

Vaping and E-cigarette Use on the Increase

Around one in twelve (8.7%) respondents to the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) — which covers adults aged 16 years and over in Great Britain — said they currently used an e-cigarette daily or occasionally, up from 7.7% in 2021.

E-cigarette use was highest among those aged 16 to 24 years in Great Britain, with the number in this age group who were daily or occasional vapers in 2022 up 40% from the previous year – 15.5% compared with 11.1% in 2021.

James Tucker, a data analyst in the Social Care and Health Division of ONS, said:  

"Regular use of vaping devices has increased in 2022 in Great Britain, with around 4.5 million people reporting that they use an e-cigarette daily or occasionally. The biggest change in vaping was seen in women aged 16 to 24 years who are occasional e-cigarette users, which increased to 12.2% in 2022, compared to 7.1% in 2021."

Peter Hajek, professor of clinical psychology and director of the health and lifestyle research unit at Queen Mary University of London, described the findings as "good news". He underlined that "it puts to rest the often repeated concern that use of e-cigarettes promotes smoking".

He added: "E-cigarettes are not only helping smokers quit, they also deflect potential smokers away from cigarettes."

Ms Arnott agreed that the "growth in vaping among adult smokers and ex-smokers is welcome as vaping is a very successful aid to quitting smoking". However, she emphasised the "worrying growth" in vaping among teens and young adults. 

"The Government's response to the consultation on youth vaping, due imminently, must contain concrete measures to prohibit child-friendly branding, and put products out of sight and out of reach in shops, as well as a tax on the pocket money priced disposable vapes most popular with children," she demanded.

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