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This page presents smoking statistics including cancer and smoking, history of smoking and percentage of population smoking. Also given are smoking statistics by age, socio-economic group, ethnic group, geographical variations and children. Finally, you can find information on passive smoking and tobacco control. There are more statistics on smoking and cancer in our Lifestyle section.


Smoking statistics - smoking and cancer

More than half a century ago, the causal link between lung cancer and tobacco smoking was established.1-5 Since then a wealth of information has been assembled on the tragic health consequences of tobacco consumption and the highly addictive nature of nicotine in cigarettes, which makes smoking cessation so difficult. Today, tobacco consumption is recognised as the UK’s single greatest cause of preventable illness and early death, with an estimated 102,000 people dying in 2009 from smoking-related diseases including cancers.6

Around 86% of lung cancer deaths in the UK are caused by tobacco smoking and, in addition, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) states that tobacco smoking can also cause cancers of the following sites: upper aero-digestive tract (oral cavity, nasal cavity, nasal sinuses, pharynx, larynx and oesophagus), pancreas, stomach, liver, bladder, kidney, cervix, bowel, ovary (mucinous) and myeloid leukaemia.6,7

Overall, tobacco smoking is estimated to be responsible for more than a quarter of cancer deaths in the UK, that is, around 43,000 deaths in 2009.6 Tobacco smoke is estimated to have caused around 60,000 cases of cancer in the UK in 2010.42

section reviewed 25/04/12
section updated 25/04/12


Brief history of tobacco consumption in Britain

Tobacco was first introduced to Britain in the sixteenth century when it was commonly smoked in pipes by men. Later snuff-taking and cigar smoking became popular among men but it was the invention of cigarette-making machines in the latter part of the nineteenth century that made mass consumption of tobacco possible.

By 1919, more tobacco was sold as cigarettes than in any other form.9 At first only men smoked cigarettes and their consumption rose steadily until 1945, when it peaked at 12 manufactured cigarettes per adult male per day.

After the Second World War there was a slight dip in consumption, but thereafter it remained at around 10 manufactured cigarettes per day until 1974 which marked the start of a steady and continuous decrease to 6.3 manufactured cigarettes per adult male per day in 1987.9

Women began to smoke cigarettes in the 1920s but not in large numbers until after the Second World War, by which time they were smoking 3.4 cigarettes per adult female per day. Consumption continued to increase until it reached 7.2 cigarettes per day in 1974; it then declined to 5.1 cigarettes per day in 1987.9

section reviewed 25/04/12
section updated 25/04/12


Percentage of population who smoke

In Britain in 1948, when surveys of smoking began, smoking was extremely prevalent among men: 82% smoked some form of tobacco and 65% were cigarette smokers. By 1970, the percentage of male cigarette smokers had fallen to 55%. From the 1970s onwards, smoking prevalence fell rapidly until the mid-1990s. Since then the rate has continued to fall slowly and in 2007 around a fifth (22%) of men (aged 16 and over) were reported as cigarette smokers. Between 2007 and 2009, the rate remained stable, and fell to 21% in 2010 (Figure 6.1).9,10 Trends in lung cancer incidence rates (shown here from 1975 onwards) reflect the trends in smoking prevalence in past years.

Figure 6.1: Smoking Prevalence and Lung Cancer Incidence, by Sex, Great Britain, 1948-2010

Chart showing prevalence of smoking and trends in lung cancer incidence in men and women in Britain

Download this chart (27.5KB)

Smoking has never been a majority habit among women and the percentage of female smokers remained remarkably constant between 1948 and 1970 (41% in 1948 and 44% in 1970). By 2007, the percentage of women who smoke had decreased to around 20%, and has stayed around this level since then. Between 1974 and 2007, smoking prevalence was significantly higher in men than women, but in 2008 and 2010, the difference between the sexes was not statistically significant (Figure 6.1).8,10 There are estimated to be around 10 million adults in Britain who smoke cigarettes.11

Recent research suggests that self-reported cigarette smoking rates may underestimate true tobacco smoking prevalence by 2.8% in England.12

section reviewed 25/04/12
section updated 25/04/12


Smokers by age

Since 1986, the highest rates of smoking in adults in Great Britain have been in the 20-24 age-group (27% in 2010), followed by the 25-34 age-group (26% in 2010). The lowest prevalence of smoking since 1974 has been in persons aged 60 and over (13% in 2010, Figure 6.2).10 The difference between the age-groups has historically been smaller and has increased over time. For example, in Britain, among people aged 60 and over, the prevalence of smoking decreased by more than half between 1974 and 2010, from 34% to 13%, whereas among people aged 20-24, the decrease was smaller, from 48% to 27% over the same time period.

Figure 6.2: Cigarette Smoking Prevalence, by Age, Great Britain, 1974-2010*, Persons


Download this chart XLS (74KB)

*Trends data have been smoothed using estimated values for some years. Estimated years are indicated in the download

In men in Great Britain, the highest rates of smoking were also in the 20-24 age-group between 1986 and 1998, but in 2000, the peak rate of smoking was in the 25-34 age-group. Rates of smoking were similar in both these age-groups until 2008, since when the rate has been higher in the 25-34 age-group (28% in 2010, Figure 6.3).10 Since 1986, the lowest smoking rates in men have been in those aged 60 and over.10

Figure 6.3: Cigarette Smoking Prevalence, by Age, Great Britain, 1974-2010*, Men


Download this chart XLS (75KB)

*Trends data have been smoothed using estimated values for some years. Estimated years are indicated in the download

In women in Great Britain, the highest rates of smoking have been in the 20-24 age-group since 1986 (29% in 2010), followed by the 25-34 age-group (25% in 2010). The lowest prevalence of smoking since 1974 has been among women aged 60 and over (13% in 2010) (Figure 6.4).10

Figure 6.4: Cigarette Smoking Prevalence, by Age, Great Britain, 1974-2010*, Women


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*Trends data have been smoothed using estimated values for some years. Estimated years are indicated in the download

section reviewed 25/04/12
section updated 25/04/12


Smokers by socio-economic group

Before the dangers of cigarette smoking were widely known, smoking prevalence varied little by socio-economic group. Today there are clear differences due to the differential decline in smoking by social class that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s.10

In 2010, 28% of adults in routine and manual households smoked compared with 13% of those in managerial and professional households (Figure 6.5).10 The difference between higher professional households and manual households is even greater (9% compared with 31%).10

Figure 6.5: Prevalence of Cigarette Smoking by Socio-Economic Group*, Adults Aged 16 and Over, Great Britain


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*Figures for 2010 are for Routine & Manual and Managerial & Professional groups

Manual workers start to smoke at an earlier age, with 48% of men and 40% of women in routine and manual occupations in Britain regularly smoking by age 16 compared with 33% of men and 28% of women in managerial and professional occupations, according to the results of the 2005 General Household Survey.49

Smoking is a key contributory factor to health inequalities between socio-economic groups in the UK and accounts for a major part of the differences in life expectancy between manual and non-manual groups. 

section reviewed 25/04/12
section updated 25/04/12


Smokers by ethnic group

Smoking rates vary considerably between ethnic groups and between men and women within those groups (Figure 6.6).14

Figure 6.6: Cigarette Smoking Percentages, by Sex and Minority Ethnic Group, Persons Aged 16 and Over, England


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In men, smoking rates ranged from 20% (Indian) to 40% (Bangladeshi) compared with the national average of 24%. In women the rates ranged from 2% (Bangladeshi) to 26% (Irish) compared with the national average of 23%.14

As with the general population, smoking prevalence in minority ethnic groups tends to decrease with age with the highest rates in those aged 16-34. Exceptions are Black Caribbean and South Asian men in whom prevalence is highest in those aged 35-54.14

In the general population male smoking prevalence fell from 27% to 24% between 1999 and 2004. There were also significant decreases among Black Caribbean (35% to 25%) and Irish men (39% to 30%) and Irish women (33% to 26%) but there were no significant decreases in the other ethnic groups.14

As the above smoking prevalence rates are based on self-reported data, it is likely that they are underestimates.12 Saliva cotinine samples provide evidence of higher rates. For example, self-reported use of tobacco products (including chewing tobacco) was 44% and 17% for Bangladeshi men and women respectively, while cotinine levels suggest levels of 60% for men and 35% for women. Among Bangladeshi women, virtually all self-reported tobacco use was derived from use of chewing tobacco (16%) rather than smoking cigarettes (2%). There is more information on use of chewing tobacco in minority ethnic groups in our Lifestyle section.14

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section updated 25/04/12


Smokers by geographical region

In Britain, Scotland and Wales had higher smoking prevalence rates, at 25% in 2010, compared with England (20%).10 Within England, prevalence in 2010 was higher in the North West and Yorkshire & the Humber than in the East Midlands, London and the South West (Figure 6.7).10

Figure 6.7: Cigarette Smoking Prevalence, Adults Aged 16 and Over, by English Government Office Region


Download this chart XLS (60KB)


Smoking prevalence varies widely around the world and is increasing rapidly in many developing countries, creating huge health problems for the future if unchecked. Worldwide approximately 1.3 billion people currently smoke cigarettes or other tobacco products.16

The majority of the world’s smokers (nearly 80%) live in low or middle income countries.13 Already, tobacco kills nearly 6 million people worldwide each year, including more than 600,000 non-smokers who die from exposure to tobacco smoke.27 If current trends continue, by 2030 tobacco will kill more than 8 million people worldwide each year, with 80% of these premature deaths among people living in low- and middle-income countries.27 Over the course of the 21st century, tobacco use could kill a billion people or more.17,27

A model of the worldwide tobacco epidemic (Figure 6.8), describes first the rise and decline in smoking prevalence, followed by a similar trend for smoking-related diseases.18

Figure 6.8: Stages of the Tobacco Epidemic

Figure 6.6: Stages of the worldwide tobacco epidemic

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The UK and other westernised countries are in the fourth stage of the tobacco epidemic with smoking prevalence below 30%. In Asia, which contains around 60% of the world’s population and over half the world’s smokers, male smoking prevalences are in excess of 35%, for example, 38% in Japan, 53% in China and 47% in Vietnam, according to figures compiled by the WHO in 2010.19,20 If current trends continue, two to three million annual tobacco-related deaths are predicted for China alone by the 2020s.15

Not all countries fit the model perfectly, for example the characteristic increase in female smoking rates in the second stage has not occurred in China where female smoking prevalence remains below 5%.19 However, the model allows each country ‘to find itself in relation to the larger pandemic’ and to take the necessary action to interrupt the natural relationship between tobacco consumption and death.16

Within the EU there is wide variation in cigarette smoking prevalence from around 18% in Sweden to 40% in Greece. These percentages are based on survey data for 2005.21 The average for the 25 countries of the EU was 27%.21

Many northern European countries are in the fourth stage of the tobacco epidemic, with falling smoking rates and widening socioeconomic differences in smoking. Southern European countries have mostly reached the third stage of the tobacco epidemic.

Of particular concern, is the fact that in most countries young people are more likely to be current smokers than older people.22 For example, there is a striking contrast between older and younger women in Spain, with less than 5% of Spanish women aged 45-74 smoking compared with nearly 40% of young (25-44) women in Spain.

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section updated 25/04/12


Childhood smokers

It is illegal to sell any tobacco product to under-18s in the UK. However, while less than 1% of 11 and 12-year old children smoke, by the age of 15 years, 11% of children in England report being regular smokers (usually smoke at least one cigarette per week).23 According to these figures, the Department of Health has met its 2011 target of reducing smoking among 15-year-olds in England to 12% or less by 2015.52 However, there is evidence that actual smoking rates among 15-year olds may be higher than reported based on measurements of cotinine in saliva, with 21% of 15-year old boys and 19% of 15-year old girls having cotinine levels indicative of active smoking compared to only 8% of boys and 10% of girls who reported regular smoking in the same time period.24

In 2011, 5% of children aged 11-15 years smoked at least one cigarette each week (Figure 6.9). This is a similar proportion to 2010, and maintains the decline recorded since the mid-1990s.23

Since 1986, girls have had consistently higher rates of smoking than boys. In England in 2011, similar proportions of boys and girls were regular smokers (4% and 5% respectively), but in a multivariate analysis which takes into account other lifestyle factors girls were twice as likely to be regular smokers than boys for all children aged 11-15 years.23 The proportion of 15-year-olds in Scotland smoking regularly in 2010 was similar to England in the same year (11% of boys and 14% of girls).23,51 On average, regular child smokers smoke 36 cigarettes per week.23

Figure 6.9: Percentage of Children Smoking Regularly by Age, England, 2011


Download this chart XLS (43KB) PPT (124KB) PDF (39KB)

Around 40% of regular smokers began smoking before they were 16.53 However, the number of children aged 11-15 starting smoking in the UK has fallen from over 290,000 in 2000 to more than 207,000 in 2011 (Table 6.10). Possible reasons for the fall include the tobacco advertising ban and the introduction of smokefree legislation (see tobacco control section below).

Figure 6.10: Number of Children Aged 11-15 Starting Smoking, UK, 2001-2011


Download this chart XLS (55KB) PPT (137KB) PDF (41KB)

The smoking rates used are for 11-15 year-olds in England, which were applied to mid-year population estimates for the UK to calculate the number of 11-15 year-olds starting smoking in the UK

The number of new children smokers was calculated by the Statistical Information Team by comparing smoking rates of ‘current smokers’ at each age from the Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England reports with the smoking rates of the same cohort in the year before.23 So, 13 year-olds in 2011 were compared with 12 year-olds in 2010. ‘Current smokers’ include both regular smokers (one or more cigarettes per week) and occasional smokers (less than one cigarette per week).

If, from a thousand children aged 12 in 2010, 10 smoked regularly, 20 smoked occasionally and 20 used to smoke, and, from a thousand children aged 13 in 2011, 30 smoked regularly, 20 smoked occasionally and 40 used to smoke, there are clearly an additional 20 smokers in 2011 than 2010 (current smokers have increased from 30 to 50). But, in addition, 20 of the 12 year-old smokers in 2010 have given up. To take account of these children that used to smoke, an equivalent number of children must also have started smoking (or else the 20 smokers giving up and starting would cancel each other out), so there are actually 40 new children smoking.

This calculation was repeated for all the other age groups to give the number of new children aged 11-15 who started smoking in the UK from 2001 to 2011.

The adolescent years are extremely important in establishing an individual’s lifetime smoking or non-smoking behaviour. Having parents, siblings and peers who smoke is a factor that encourages children to smoke. Other factors linked to an increased likelihood of smoking in childhood include school truancy and exclusion and deprivation.23

There is evidence that a younger age of smoking initiation carries additional risks of lung damage,26 and it has been shown that people taking up smoking before the age of 15 have double the risk of lung cancer of those starting at the age of 20 or later, after taking into account the amount smoked.36

section reviewed 22/03/13
section updated 22/03/13


Secondhand smoke

Research has consistently shown that non-smokers are put at risk by exposure to other people’s smoke.34 This may be called passive or involuntary smoking and is also referred to as secondhand smoke (SHS) or environmental tobacco smoke (ETS).

Tobacco smoke is made up of ‘sidestream’ smoke from the burning tip of the cigarette and ‘mainstream smoke’ from the filter or mouth end: it is the sidestream smoke that makes up the majority (85%) of ETS. The government’s Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health (SCOTH) concluded in 1998 that ETS caused lung cancer and heart disease in adult non-smokers.28

The most recent meta-analyses have confirmed these findings and estimate that non-smokers exposed to passive smoking at home or in their occupation have their risk of lung cancer raised about a quarter, while heavy exposure at work doubles the risk.29,48

Passive smoking also contributes to continuing the “family circle” of smoking and there is much evidence of the harmful effects on children in ‘smoking’ households including respiratory disease, asthma attacks, cot deaths and middle ear infections.30 The Acheson report highlights the fact that while one third of children in the UK live with at least one adult smoker, among low-income families the figure is 57%.31

Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of spontaneous abortion, preterm birth, low birth weight and stillbirth.30   In addition, IARC states that there is sufficient evidence that parental smoking (mother and father) during the preconception period and pregnancy increases risk of hepatoblastoma in offspring, and limited evidence that parental smoking increases risk of childhood leukaemia in offspring.7

In 2005, 32% of women smoked in the year before or during pregnancy (a fall from 35% in 2000) and 17% (a fall from 19% in 2000) smoked throughout pregnancy.32 The rates were even higher for mothers in routine or manual jobs: 48% smoked in the year before pregnancy or during and 29% throughout pregnancy compared to mothers in managerial or professional jobs whose equivalent percentages were 19% and 7%.32

The Department of Health has set a target of reducing smoking in pregnancy in England to 11% or less by the end of 2015.52 This follows an earlier target set in the White Paper, "Smoking Kills".33

It is estimated that exposure to ETS in the home causes around 11,000 deaths in the UK each year from lung cancer, stroke and ischaemic heart disease.34

In Scotland out of the 865 annual deaths caused by ETS, an estimated 5% (44) are from lung cancer.35 Applying this percentage to the UK, an estimated 600 deaths from lung cancer may be caused each year by ETS. The case for reducing exposure to ETS is incontrovertible and led to legislation in England making enclosed public places and workplaces smokefree from 1st July 2007, following earlier legislation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

section reviewed 24/04/12
section updated 24/04/12


Tobacco control

It is estimated that one in two regular cigarette smokers will eventually be killed by their tobacco habit, half of these between the ages of 35 and 69.17 Over the last 50 years, it is estimated that 6.5 million people in the UK have died from tobacco-related diseases.6 If current smokers can be encouraged to quit, mortality during the first half of the 21st century will be reduced: discouraging young people from starting to smoke will reduce smoking-related deaths during the middle or second half of the 21st century.

A range of measures is needed to tackle the tobacco problem and the Department of Health’s policy on reducing deaths due to smoking has identified six areas for action:

  • reducing exposure to ETS
  • education
  • reducing availability of tobacco products and regulating supply
  • help for the individual to stop smoking
  • reducing tobacco advertising and promotion
  • and regulating tobacco products.37

The introduction of Smokefree legislation in the UK was complete by July 1 2007 as described in the section above on secondhand smoke. Many charities and professional organisations as well as the government are involved in educating the public on the dangers of smoking, in particular targeting the more socio-economically deprived groups who have the highest smoking rates.

Price increases have proved to be an effective measure for reducing smoking. On average, a price increase of 10% on a packet of cigarettes reduces consumption by about 4% in developed countries.25 However, price control is undermined by tobacco smuggling which currently accounts for 16% of the UK market.38,50

Tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship is banned in the UK.39 Health warnings have to cover 30% of the front and 40% of the back of tobacco packaging, while terms such as ‘low-tar’ and ‘light’ are prohibited.40 Maximum yields are set on the amounts of tar (10mg), carbon monoxide (10mg) and nicotine (1mg) in cigarettes.40

Between 1970-2000, British men experienced the most rapid decrease in death rates from tobacco in the world as a result of smokers quitting the habit.41 Over two-thirds (67%) of current British smokers would like to give up smoking.41

To help smokers to quit smoking, the government set up the NHS Stop Smoking Service, in 1999/00, following recommendations of the White Paper "Smoking Kills" in 1998.33 Between April and September 2006 nearly a quarter of a million (246,254) people in England set a quit date through NHS Stop Smoking Services.43

The majority of these people received nicotine replacement therapy. Around half were still non-smokers at four weeks. Removing the large differences in smoking rates between socio-economic groups was first targeted in the Cancer Plan44 and later in the Public Service Agreement in 2004.13

Smoking rates are currently only declining at less than 0.4% per annum in the UK45, and, in order to meet the Government’s targets, a greater decline is needed. To achieve this a new comprehensive national strategy building on Smoking Kills is required.46

Tobacco control is recognised as a global problem as tobacco companies target the developing world. In May 2003, the World Health Organisation (WHO) adopted the world’s first public health treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to provide countries with the basic tools to enact comprehensive tobacco control legislation.47 The FCTC was open for signature until 29 June 2004, by which point 168 countries had ratified the treaty which, if effectively implemented, offers the possibility of stemming the tobacco pandemic in the developing world.

Section updated 25/04/12


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References for lung cancer and smoking

  1. Doll R, Hill A. Smoking and carcinoma of the lung. Preliminary report. British Medical Journal 1950:739-48
  2. Wynder EL, Graham EA. Tobacco smoking as a possible etiologic factor in bronchogenic carcinoma. JAMA 1950;143: 329-36
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  25. The World Bank. Tobacco facts 1. Tobacco control in developing countries. (PDF 562.5KB) Accessed April 2012
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  29. Taylor R, Najafi F, Dobson A. Meta-analysis of studies of passive smoking and lung cancer: effects of study type and continent. Int J Epidemiol 2007; 36(5):1048-59
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  32. Office for National Statistics. Statistics on smoking:England 2006. (PDF 667.23 KB) 2006
  33. Department of Health. Smoking Kills: A White Paper on Tobacco. London: TSO; 1999
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  36. Peto R, Darby S, Deo H, et al. Smoking, smoking cessation, and lung cancer in the UK since 1950: combination of national statistics with two case-control studies. BMJ 2000;321(7257):323-9.
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  39. Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act. 2002.
  40. The Tobacco Products (Manufacture, Presentation and Sale)(Safety) Regulations. 2002.
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  47. WHO. WHO framework convention on tobacco control. (PDF 542.5KB) 2003, updated reprint 2004, 2005.
  48. Stayner L, Bena J, Sasco AJ, et al. Lung cancer risk and workplace exposure to environmental tobacco smoke. Am J Public Health 2007; 97(3): 545-51
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Updated: 25 April 2012