The government is expected to miss its targetof England being smoke-free by 2030 because so many poorer people are still using cigarettes, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) has warned.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, set that ambition in last year’s green paper on health prevention which spelled out his determination to “finish the job” of eradicating smoking, including an ultimatum for industry to make smoked tobacco obsolete by 2030.
However, persistently high rates of smoking in more deprived areas means that on current trends England will not be smoke-free until 2037, seven years later than hoped, CRUK said in a report on Tuesday.
Smoking prevalence has fallen significantly in recent years. Overall, 14% of adults in England now light up, according to figures from the most recent annual population survey. Smoke-free status is defined as when just 5% of adults use tobacco.
Smoking remains the biggest cause of preventable ill-health, such as cancer, heart attacks and stroke, killing about 115,000 people a year. It is estimated to cost the UK £11bn a year, of which £2bn is spent by the NHS.
Smoking involves stark inequalities. While just 7.6% of the best-off continue to use tobacco, the rate is almost three times higher, at 22%, among the most deprived.
Projections undertaken by CRUK show that it will take a further 20 years to get smoking down to 5% in England’s poorest communities. While prevalence is expected to fall to that level among the richest by 2025, it will take until 2045 to achieve the same rate among the most deprived.
Dr Katrina Brown, the charity’s statistics manager and co-author of the report, said: “Our modelling suggests that if the 2020 target is achieved, there could be 3.4 million fewer smokers in England compared to today.
“But unless government acts to make smoking rates fall faster, we’re unlikely to reach the target,” she added.
The charity wants ministers to try to deliver the 2030 pledge by putting more money into public information campaigns to discourage smoking and stop smoking services. Both have been cut in recent years as a result of Whitehall reducing the amount of public health funding it gives local councils.
It is also urging ministers to impose a levy on tobacco firms to help pay for those measures. That would yield about £265.5m in England and £315.2m across the UK, “easily affordable” sums for an industry that makes £1.5bn a year profit, CRUK says.
Toby Green, the policy and research manager at the Royal Society for Public Health, said: “Reaching the smoke-free ambition by 2037 instead of the 2030 target may not sound like a disaster. But as this new analysis shows, the reality of this is 2 million more smokers in England a decade from now, unless we scale up our efforts.”
The Taskforce for Lung Health estimated recently that, although 1.5 million people in England quit smoking through stop smoking services between 2011 and 2019, another 904,430 would have done so if more support had been available.
CRUK’s analysis also found that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will not be smoke-free until after 2050, 2037 and the late 2040s respectively.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Smoking rates are at their lowest since records began and robust government action, including plain packaging and awareness campaigns, are driving us towards our ambition to be a smoke-free society by 2030.
“We are a global leader in tobacco control and prevention remains at the heart of our NHS long-term plan. We are supporting local authorities with £3bn funding this financial year to spend on public health services, including stop-smoking services.”