How many people smoke these days - and do Britons smoke more than the French?

·2-min read

The government has an ambition to reduce the number of smokers in Britain to below 5% by 2030.

Ministers are split on how best to do this, but a government-commissioned review has recommended that the age at which people can legally buy cigarettes should rise by a year every year until they are illegal for everyone.

The same approach has been used in New Zealand, where people born after 2008 will never be legally allowed to buy cigarettes.

The UK is already one of the leading countries in Europe when it comes to not smoking, with people in France almost twice as likely to smoke as those in Britain according to the World Population Review.

The number of smokers has dropped by more than two thirds in the past 50 years, from more than three in seven people in 1974 to fewer than one in seven in 2020.

And there are early signs that the pandemic may have helped speed up that drop. Although the number of smokers rose again after the striking drop when lockdown was first announced, they remained consistently below pre-pandemic levels.

People aged 60 and over are significantly less likely to be smokers than those in their earlier years, though more of the older generation have been smokers at one point or another in their lives.

Stopping those youngest smokers from starting is the main aim of today's recommendations.

Men have always been more likely to smoke than women, with a gap of more than ten percentage points in 1974 when the ONS first started collecting these figures.

The gap has narrowed now as both genders have dropped smoking at a similar rate.

The number of smokers who say they intend to quit has already been on the way down in recent years. According to the latest figures, it rose by a quarter between 2018 and 2020.

The rise of vaping could be part of the reason for that. Current smokers are most likely to have tried vaping at some point, and ex-smokers are most likely to be daily vapers.

Last year the WHO branded e-cigarettes as "harmful" and warned that their use should be better regulated to protect children and teenagers from becoming addicted to nicotine, and using them as a "gateway" to smoking.

Martin Dockrell, tobacco control lead at the UK Health Security Agency, said that although vaping is not "risk-free", it is "far less harmful than smoking".

The fact that fewer than 3% of non-smokers have ever vaped will be seen as positive either way.

The total number of e-cigarette users has almost doubled since 2014, but more than 85% of people in England, Wales and Scotland have never tried one, and people in their 50s are more likely to be regular users than any other age group.

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