Worrying new figures from Cancer Research UK reveal that most young adults in England are under the false impression that becoming a smoker is the norm.

Official figures put the proportion of adults who smoke at about a quarter. But results from a survey published today (Wednesday 28 March)* show that the vast majority of 16 to 24 year olds – 83 per cent – think the figure is much higher than this. Sixty per cent believed at least half of all adults in England smoke. And nearly 40 per cent thought the figure was as high as two-thirds or more.

These perceptions are cause for considerable concern. Findings from other areas of research suggest that, if young people believe smoking is prevalent, they are more likely to become a smoker too.

Professor Robert West, director of tobacco studies at Cancer Research UK’s Health Behaviour Unit, said: “These figures reveal a surprising gap between reality and perception. They suggest fewer young people might take up smoking if they realised it’s not as commonplace as they think.

“The reality is that smoking is not in any sense of the word a ‘normal’ or desirable activity. The number of smokers has been falling for decades and the vast majority of people who are smokers want to give up.”

Even if the young people surveyed based their judgements on people their own age, they still grossly over-estimated the proportion of the population who smoke. Smoking prevalence among 16-24 year olds is only slightly higher than the national average.

Over 1,700 adults in England, representing both genders, all ages and all socio-economic groups, took part in the survey.

Overall, nearly three quarters over-estimated the number of people who smoke. Young people and the elderly over-estimated the most.

The gap between perception and reality also varied according to socio-economic group. Of those in the lowest paid occupations or who were unemployed, 80 per cent over-estimated smoking rates compared with 62 per cent in professional and managerial groups.

Jean King, Cancer Research UK’s director of tobacco control, said: “Young people are particularly hard to reach with anti-smoking messages, which makes it worrying that, as a group, they over-estimate the number of smokers the most.

“It’s important that these perceptions are corrected. But this study also highlights the need to more stringently restrict the tobacco industry’s ability to influence this vulnerable group and send subtle messages that smoking is ‘normal’ and ‘cool’.”


For media enquiries contact Sophy Fitzpatrick in the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7 061 8318 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.


*The results of the survey can be downloaded from the Smoking Toolkit Study website.

The Smoking Toolkit Study is a monthly series of national surveys of the adult population in England assessing how the country is doing with regard to reducing smoking prevalence. It measures how many people currently smoke daily and non-daily, how many have tried to quit in the past month, what prompted them to try, what they used to try to quit and whether they are still not smoking. Those who are smokers or recently gave up are then followed up after three months and six months to see how many of them have tried again or are still successful.

The survey was carried out in January 2007.

Q: What percentage of people aged 16 and over in England do you think smoke?

  • One tenth
  • One quarter
  • One third
  • One half
  • Two thirds
  • More than two thirds

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  • Cancer Research UK carries out world-class research to improve understanding of the disease and find out how to prevent, diagnose and treat different kinds of cancer.
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