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This week, a report from the Office of National Statistics reported that the proportion of smokers in the UK has fallen to a record low. In 2006, just 22% of people over the age of 16 smoked cigarettes, down from 27% in the late 1990s.

It’s certainly good news and on the face of it, the Government seem set to meet their target of reducing the proportion of smokers in the UK to 21% by 2010.

However, there’s good reason to be cautious when looking at these stats. They come from the General Household Survey, which in turn depends on people answering questions about their behaviour truthfully. Sadly, we know that they often don’t.

Last year, Robert West, Director of Tobacco Studies at our Health Behaviour Unit revealed the true proportion of smokers in three countries including England. He collected saliva samples from over 6,600 people and measured their levels of cotinine, a chemical created when nicotine is metabolised in the body.

The study showed that surveys like the GHS are off by about 3%, making the true proportion of smokers in the UK larger than estimated.

This hidden 3% had levels of cotinine that were far too high to be explained by passive smoking. They could only have been caused by substantial levels of active smoking.

If this underestimation stays the same over time, then the fall in levels of smoking is still good news. More people may be smoking than we think, but at least the number is going down.

But the report itself says that more and more people may be misrepresenting their smoking habits.

As smoking has become less acceptable as a social habit, some people may have become less inclined to admit how much they smoke – or, indeed, to admit to smoking at all.

So while there’s every reason to be optimistic about the reported decline in smoking, it’s worth remembering that there is a good deal of uncertainty over the numbers.

Even with the ban on smoking in public places, there’s no room for complacency in tobacco control measures. Smoking is, after all, still the single biggest cause of cancer in the world.

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Comments

Morgan Livie February 22, 2012

i find these figures bogus, as no one i know who smoked cigarettes has given up all they have done is changed to hand rolling tobacco and they dont buy it from shops but illegal non taxable sources as i do myself so all these people the government think have stopped have not they have moved off the radar, the same applies to cigaretted they buy from illegal sources at half price so all figures are total rubbish sales will be down going on official sales but if smokers buy illegally then no one will ever know.Every friday in my work a person who sells tobacco sells 2 black bin bags of Golden Virginia 600 50g packs at £7 rrp£15 every week no tax no trace supply is endless this is the result of our goverments
tax rules.

Amy January 11, 2012

The rubbish thing is. Im 17 and I’ve hated it all my life but since the people I’m around do it all the time I’ve started myself. Yeah It makes me dizzy but secretely I don’t want to smoke but when you cant get a job or have nothing to do with your days smoking and drinking make you feel that one bit better. I hate what Im doing to my body.

Euan March 8, 2010

IT SHOULD BE ILLEGAL !!!!

thanks for listening ;)

Fran November 19, 2009

Yeah, but how many people in the world SMOKE at the moment? i want numbers not %!