Every year around 157,000 children aged 11-15 start smoking – that’s enough to fill 5,200 classrooms or make up nearly 14,000 junior football teams.
These shocking figures, revealed in a new analysis by Cancer Research UK, highlight the ongoing scale of the tobacco problem, and underline the importance of sustained action to discourage young people from starting to smoke, including by introducing plain packaging for all tobacco products as soon as possible.
And almost one million children – those aged 15 and under – in the UK have tried smoking at least once – around 27 per cent of children.
Preventing young people from being tempted to try smoking is vital as eight out of ten adult smokers start before they turn 19.
Children who smoke just one cigarette by the age of 11 are around twice as likely to take up smoking over the next few years than those who do not experiment with smoking.
We already know that for children aged 12 in 2009 1 per cent smoked regularly, 2 per cent smoked occasionally and 2 per cent said they used to smoke.
A year later in 2010 it has been calculated that among the same age group of children, now aged 13, 3 per cent smoked regularly, 2 per cent smoked occasionally and 4 per cent said they used to smoke.
Starting to smoke at a young age carries additional risks of lung damage.
Half of all long term smokers will die from tobacco related illness. Around 100,000 people are killed by smoking in the UK each year.
That is why Cancer Research UK is petitioning the government to bring in plain packaging of tobacco so children are less likely to be seduced by the sophisticated marketing techniques designed to make smoking attractive to youngsters.
Jim Richardson, 56, from Prudhoe in Northumberland started smoking when he was about 15 and was diagnosed with advanced and inoperable lung cancer in 2010. Father of four Jim is now desperate to help prevent more young people from starting smoking.
“I started smoking because it was considered cool,” he said. “ Back then, my friends thought it odd if people didn’t smoke. I smoked about 20 a day but I quit cigarettes when I was 21 after the birth of my first son Jimmy. But I didn’t stop smoking. Instead I switched to cigars because I was lured in by the persuasive advertising campaign ‘Happiness is a Cigar Called Hamlet.’ I honestly thought they were mild and not harmful.
“In 2010 I woke up one morning full of aches and pains which I assumed was the start of flu. I’d always been very fit so I decided to nip it in the bud by going to the doctor. My GP was concerned by some blood tests so I had an X-Ray which revealed a shadow on the lung and this turned out to be lung cancer.
“The toughest day of my life was sitting each of my children down and telling them I had lung cancer. I have three grandchildren too and I was devastated that I might not see them growing up. My prognosis was pretty poor but I began treatment immediately.
“To my absolute joy and gratitude the treatment seems to be working. Looking at the CT scans I know that the chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy reduced my cancer to a tiny fraction of its size and I feel as if I’ve been given a second chance.
“I know first-hand how horrific lung cancer is and how it’s almost always preventable by not smoking in the first place. My wife Di and I run children’s day nurseries and out-of-school clubs in Hexham and Prudhoe caring for young children. I would hate to think that any of the hundreds of children we have looked after might ever go through what I have because they were tempted by one glitzy packet attempting to make smoking look cool. I’ve worked out that I’ve spent £90,000 on a habit that was slowly killing me. There’s absolutely nothing cool about that.”
All forms of tobacco have health risks associated with them including cigars.
Jean King, Cancer Research UK’s director of tobacco control, said: “Far too many young people start smoking every year. We must act to bring this number down.
“The tobacco industry spends a great deal of money on designing cigarettes and their packets so they seem glamorous, appealing, fashionable and attractive in an effort to recruit more customers. With advertising outlawed, the cigarette packet is now the most important marketing tool the tobacco industry has.
“Our research has shown that selling all cigarettes in standardised packs will help reduce the appeal of smoking and give children one less reason to start smoking.”
For more information contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300 or, out of hours, on 07050 264 059.
This new analysis is based on figures taken from the Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England (2000 to 2010).
The “started smoking” figure is calculated by comparing the smoking rates at each age with the smoking rates of the same group in the year before.
There were an additional 2 per cent smokers in 2010 than 2009 (regular smokers from 1 per cent to 3 per cent) but in addition 2 per cent of the 12 year old smokers in 2009 gave up (used to smoke up from 2 per cent to 4 per cent) so an equivalent number of smokers must have started (or else the 2 per cent smokers giving up and starting would cancel each other out) so there are actually 4 per cent new children smoking.
The four per cent is applied to the UK population to give a number of new children age 13 who start smoking in the UK. This is repeated for the other age groups and the totals added to give a figure for the number of new children.
Previous research has only been done for England and on the number of children who try smoking for the first time.
So 13 year olds in 2010 are compared with 12 year olds in 2009. Both regular – one or more cigarette per week – and occasional smokers – less than one cigarette per week – are included.