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Smoke Free UK Factsheet
General Smoking Facts
Who smokes?
  • Children become aware of cigarettes at an early age. Three out of four children are aware of cigarettes before they reach the age of 5 whether the parents smoke or not.
  • By the age of 11 one-third of children, and by 16 years two-thirds of children have experimented with smoking.
  • In Great Britain about 450 children start smoking every day.
  • In 1982, the Government commissioned the first national survey of smoking among children and found that 11% of 11‑16 year olds were smoking regularly.
  • During the early nineties prevalence remained stable at 10%, but by the mid nineties teenage smoking rates were on the increase, particularly among girls. 
  • In 1998, the government set a target to reduce the prevalence of regular smoking among young people aged 11-15 from a baseline of 13% in 1996 to 11% by 2005 and 9% or less by 2010. 
  • Girls are more likely to be regular smokers than boys.
  • The proportion of regular smokers increases sharply with age:
    1% of 11 year olds smoke regularly compared with 22% of 15-year olds.
What factors influence children to start smoking?
  • Children are three times as likely to smoke if both of their parents smoke and parents' approval or disapproval of the habit is also a significant factor.
  • Numerous studies have shown that most young smokers are influenced by their friends' and older siblings' smoking habits.
  • Surveys show that children tend to smoke the brands that are promoted most heavily and advertising reinforces the smoking habit.
Smoking and children's health
  • Children who smoke are two to six times more susceptible to coughs and increased phlegm, wheeziness and shortness of breath than those who do not smoke.
  • Studies have shown that children who smoke are 3 times more likely to have time off school.
  • The earlier children become regular smokers and persist in the habit as adults, the greater the risk of dying prematurely.
  • A recent US study found that smoking during the teenage years causes permanent genetic changes in the lungs and forever increases the risk of lung cancer, even if the smoker subsequently stops.
The effects of passive smoking
(second hand smoke ) on children
  • Children are also more susceptible to the effects of passive smoking and cotinine levels found in the saliva of children whose parents smoke indicate that in households where both parents smoke, the children are receiving a nicotine equivalent of smoking 80 cigarettes a year.
  • Bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma and other chronic respiratory illnesses are significantly more common in infants and children who have one or two smoking parents.
  • One study found that in households where both parents smoke, young children have a 72% increased risk of respiratory illness
  • Children of parents who smoke during the child's early life run a higher risk of cancer in adulthood and the larger the number of smokers in a household, the greater the cancer risk to non-smokers in the family. 
Risk to young children
  • Infants of parents who smoke are more likely to be admitted to hospital for bronchitis and pneumonia in the first year of life. More than 17,000 children under the age of 5 years are admitted to hospital every year because of the effects of passive smoking
  • Passive smoking during childhood predisposes children to developing chronic obstructive airway disease and cancer as adults.
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke may also impair olfactory function in children
  • A Canadian study found that passive smoking reduced children’s ability to detect a wide variety of odours compared with children raised in a non-smoking household. Passive smoking may also affect children’s mental development.
  • Children who experiment with cigarettes quickly become addicted to the nicotine in tobacco.
  • A MORI survey of children aged 11 to 16 years found that teenagers have similar levels of nicotine dependence as adults, with one third of those who smoke one or more cigarettes a week lighting up their first cigarette within 30 minutes of waking up and one in twelve lighting up within the first 5 minutes.
  • Over half (58%) of regular smokers aged between 11 and 15 years say that they would find it difficult to go without smoking for a week while 72% thought they would find it difficult to stop altogether.
  • During periods of abstinence, young people experience withdrawal symptoms similar to the kind experienced by adult smokers.
Children, smoking and the law
  • The Act increased the maximum fines for retailers found guilty of selling cigarettes to children to £2,500
  • During 2002 there were 105 prosecutions in England and Wales for underage tobacco sales, with 84 defendants being found guilty and 73 fined.
  • In spite of the law, however, a study in 1996 revealed that the treasury received £108 million pounds in taxation from the illegal sale of cigarettes to children. In 1997 it was estimated that the UK tobacco industry made an annual profit of £35 million from teenage smokers.
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