Every year we ask English pupils about their experience with smoking, drinking and drugs and the stats for 2012 have just been published: they suggest that in terms of smoking government policy is having the desired effect.
In autumn 2012, we asked over 7,500 children between the ages of 11 and 15 about their exposure to smoking. We found that 23% of pupils have tried smoking at least once and 4% are regular smokers. And while this is still probably too high, this is down 50% from when I was in secondary school in 2000.
A lot has happened since Smoking kills, the first government white paper on tobacco control 15 years ago, when youth smoking was on the up. Since then vending machines have been removed, tobacco advertising banned, the purchasing age limit has increased and slowly but surely smoking has faded from view in public life.
The government’s latest tobacco control plan, healthy lives, healthy people, published in March 2011, sets out a target to reduce smoking amongst 15 year olds to 12% or lower by 2015. According to our survey this target has already been met - with two years to go, just 10% of 15 year olds now smoke, begging the question, has the government set its sights high enough?
Although fewer young people are smoking, there is a real wealth inequality in the types of people who smoke. Prevalence is much higher among children from deprived backgrounds. And, in a somewhat vicious circle, most of those who smoke have friends or family who smoke, compounding young people’s likelihood of smoking at the lower end of the economic spectrum.
What is clear is that just being around cigarettes is enough to encourage smoking, and this is particularly true of young people and children. According to ASH most smokers take up smoking before the age 18. Though a third of children still live with a smoker and inhale second hand smoke at home, we should be pleased that the vast majority of today’s young people will raise their own kids in a smoke free environment.