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Decline in smoking stalled in England with pandemic, new study shows

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A decades-long decline in smoking in England has slowed significantly since the pandemic, according to a new study that casts doubt on Rishi Sunak’s ambition to make the country “smokefree” by 2030.

The annual decline in smoking slowed to 0.3 per cent between April 2020 and August 2022, down from 5.2 per cent between June 2017 and February 2020, according to the peer reviewed study funded by charity Cancer Research UK.

Researchers at University College London, who surveyed 101,690 adults for the study, estimated that smoking prevalence remained almost unchanged between the start of 2020 and August 2022 at about 15 per cent.

The findings suggest the government’s “smokefree” target of cutting smoking rates below 5 per cent by 2030 is in peril. The researchers said the slowdown was unlikely to have been caused by a change in methodology in April 2020 from face-to-face interviews to a telephone survey.

“The government was already not on track to meet its target for England to be smoke free by 2030. This study shows we are even further off track than we thought,” said the study’s lead author, Sarah Jackson of UCL’s institute of epidemiology and health.

An independent review, commissioned by Cancer Research UK last year, found that England was likely to miss the target by at least seven years. English smoking rates have been consistently falling for more than two decades.

The study published on Thursday in the journal BMC Medicine showed that smoking rates were declining only very slightly among the most disadvantaged groups and that prevalence rose among people aged between 18 and 24-years-old at the start of the pandemic.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of charity Action on Smoking and Health, said the findings showed that “tough action” was needed for the government to achieve its target.

“The ambitious programme recently announced by the government can put us on track, but no time must be lost in turning words into action,” she said.

Sunak has made cutting smoking rates one of his central policy goals, and has pledged to stop children aged 14 or younger ever being sold cigarettes legally in England. A consultation into the plans concluded last week.

Last month, the newly elected centre-right government in New Zealand repealed a similar generational smoking ban, leaving the UK isolated. New Zealand had been the first to attempt to raise the legal smoking age by a year each year to ensure younger people could never legally smoke.

British MPs will be given a free vote on Sunak’s smoking legislation, according to plans outlined in the King’s Speech. The measures have provoked dissent from the right flank of the Conservative party but will probably survive any Tory rebellion as it has broad support from opposition parties, including Labour.

The Department of Health and Social Care said the government had doubled funding for stop-smoking services to nearly £140mn a year, helping 360,000 people to quit with affordable and easy access support. 

“We are supporting local authorities to provide one million free vapes via our world-first ‘Swap to Stop’ programme, and we are providing financial incentives to support pregnant women to quit,” they added.

Additional reporting by Michael Peel

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