ONS records lowest proportion of smokers in UK on record

The proportion of smokers in the UK has fallen to its lowest level on record, with statisticians saying vaping has played a “major role” in this drop.

New figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 13.3% of people aged 18 and over in the UK smoked cigarettes in 2021, the equivalent of around 6.6 million people.

This is the lowest proportion of current smokers since records started in 2011, when it stood at 20.2%.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

The ONS said there had been a “statistically significant” drop in the proportion of smokers from 14.0% of the population in 2020.

It added: “In 2021, the proportion of current smokers in the UK was 13.3%, which equates to 6.6 million people.

“There has been a statistically significant decrease in the proportion of smokers from 2020 (14.0% of the population).

“The trend in smoking prevalence continued to decrease, and the latest figure represents a 6.9 percentage point decrease in current smokers compared with 2011 (20.2% of the population).”

Vaping study
The ONS says 7.7% of those aged 16 and over surveyed in August and September last year said they use an e-cigarette daily or occasionally (PA)

Meanwhile, the ONS said that in Great Britain 7.7% of those aged 16 and over surveyed in August and September last year said they currently used an e-cigarette daily or occasionally, equating to around four million adults in the population.

This is an increase from 2020, when 6.4% of people reported daily or occasional e-cigarette use.

The ONS said that vaping devices such as e-cigarettes had played a “major role” in reducing the prevalence of smoking across the UK.

It added that the proportion of vapers was highest among current cigarette smokers (25.3%) and ex-cigarette smokers (15.0%), with only 1.5% of people who have never smoked reporting that they currently vape.

But it added that policies associated with the tobacco control plan for England, such as increased public awareness campaigns and smoke free places, may have also contributed to decreased smoking prevalence.

The Government’s tobacco control plan aims to reduce smoking prevalence among adults in England to 12% or less by the end of 2022.

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James Tucker, data and analysis for social care and health division at the ONS, said: “This year, we have reported 13.3% of adults aged 18 years and over in the UK were smokers in 2021; this is a decrease from 14.0% in 2020.

“This is the lowest proportion of current smokers since 2011, when we began recording smoking prevalence from the annual population survey (APS).

“The decrease in the proportion of current smokers may be partly attributed to the increase in vaping and e-cigarette use.

“Data from the opinions and lifestyle survey have shown regular use of a vaping device has increased in 2021 and the highest usage was among those aged 16 to 24 years.”

The highest proportion of current smokers in 2021 was in Scotland at 14.8%, with the lowest in England at 13.0%.

Wales and Northern Ireland reported 14.1% and 13.8% current smokers respectively, the ONS said.

Men were more likely to be current smokers in 2021, with 15.1% of men smoking compared with 11.5% of women in the UK.

People aged 25 to 34 years had the highest proportion of current smokers at 15.8%, the ONS said, while those aged 65 and over had the lowest at 8.0%.

The ONS said that people who had no qualifications were more likely to be current smokers at 28.2% compared to those whose highest level of education was a degree or equivalent at 6.6%.

Hazel Cheeseman, deputy chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) welcomed the drop but warned the Government must not get “complacent”.

She said: “Smoking is still the biggest cause of preventable illness and death so the progress shown today is great news. But Government must not be complacent.

“They first promised to publish a new tobacco control plan for England in 2021 but we still have seen no plan for how they will meet that goal.

“Without one we will not meet the vision of being smoke free by 2030.”

Councillor David Fothergill, chairman of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said that councils can help deliver the ambition of eliminating smoking in England by 2030, but needed certainty over long-term funding.

He added: “Council public health teams work hard to help reduce smoking rates and it is testament to their efforts that smoking rates continue to fall.

“Smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death in England. Every day more than 200 people in England die from smoking and 280 children under 16 have their first cigarette.

“Two thirds of those smoking one cigarette will go on to become addicted, taking on average thirty attempts before they successfully quit.

“Reducing smoking rates among the remaining 5.4 million smokers in England is the single biggest thing we can do to improve the nation’s health.

“Greater help is needed for those most in need of support, including routine and manual workers, pregnant women or people with mental health conditions.”