A photograph of someone holding a cigarette packet that reads 'Smoking is still the biggest preventable cause of cancer'.

For some, a world where cigarettes don’t exist might be difficult to imagine. Less than 30 years ago it would’ve been hard to picture a world free from tobacco advertising, or a pub or workplace free from smoke.

Smokefree campaigning, and the government action that produced, turned those seemingly farfetched ambitions into reality. We look back at those measures to help curb smoking as obvious and sensible. Now, the same thinking is needed to drive government action and meet smokefree ambitions across the UK.

Decades of action like this has meant that smoking rates were at an all-time low of 14.1% in the UK in 2019. But there are still around 7.5 million people in the UK who smoke, and it is still the biggest cause of cancer and premature death today. We also know that huge differences in smoking rates between the country’s most and least deprived groups means the burden of smoking is not felt equally by all.

That’s why governments across the UK have a huge responsibility to protect people who are at higher risk of tobacco-related harm and help those who smoke to stop.

Governments in England, Scotland and Wales have set out targets to reduce the number of people who smoke, known as ‘smokefree’ targets (defined as less than 5% of the adult population smoking), but are currently not on track to meet them.

Now, with the help of our Campaign Ambassadors (a community of volunteers across the UK that play an integral role in all our campaigns), we’ve launched our official Smokefree UK campaign, to ensure the UK Governments stick by their commitments and take action to make the UK smokefree for good.

We’ve made huge progress before and action we take now will help prevent thousands of cancers and save lives in the future.

Research alone isn’t going to get us to where we want to be – it’s that policy change that will get us there faster.

Kirsty Taylor, Campaigns Ambassador

What are the smokefree ambitions?

The UK Government has set a target for England to be smokefree by 2030. In practice that means reaching a stage where less than 5% of the population smoke in less than 7 years.

Smokefree targets for the other UK nations are the responsibility of devolved governments. Scotland has a target to be tobacco-free by 2034, and the Welsh Government recently set their first ever target to be smoke-free by 2030. Northern Ireland currently has no smokefree target. Progress on these targets so far has been slow, and currently no government across the UK is on track to meet them.

The Welsh and UK Governments are 7 years behind on achieving their 2030 targets.

But while projections estimate that adult smoking prevalence in Wales and England will not reach 5% until 2037, with a 40% increase in that trend, their respective 2030 targets could be achieved. The Scottish target is also not on track to be met currently.

To meet these bold ambitions, the UK needs smokefree action to help make sure young people don’t start smoking, and smokefree funding to help people quit.

That’s why we were pleased that the Welsh Government’s new tobacco control actional plan included measures that will help speed up declines in smoking rates. Other governments across the UK must follow suit.

Taking action

To achieve these figures, we’re suggesting the UK Government take a 2-pronged approach.

1. Stop the start

Making sure young people don’t start smoking is key to a future that is smokefree for all.

Most people who currently smoke started in childhood, probably before they were old enough to understand the lifelong consequences of this addiction. Almost 9 in 10 people who smoke report taking up smoking before the age of 21, and smoking prevalence is higher among the 18 to 21 age group than the general population.

The age of sale of tobacco is currently 18 in the UK, but recent reports have been calling for an increase in the age of sale.

I didn’t want my young grandchildren subjected to the same cynical marketing techniques I was exposed to, which is why I became very heavily involved in the standard packaging campaign.

The smokefree campaign would give my grandchildren one less reason to consider starting smoking as it would cease to be “the norm”.

Alan Peace, Campaigns Ambassador

By restricting the ability of younger people to buy tobacco products, there may be potential to reduce uptake and protect young people from smoking into adulthood.

That’s why we’re calling for the UK Government to take more action to prevent people from starting to smoke, starting with a public consultation on raising the age of sale of tobacco and the best way to do so.

The best way to prevent addiction is quite simply not to get started, and as a teacher I feel strongly about reducing the influence of the tobacco companies on young people.

Surely it is worth raising the age of sale, as suggested in the Khan report, so that accessibility to cigarettes becomes increasingly difficult for the young. Eventually this unhealthy and addictive habit would then become outmoded and eventually obsolete.

Mary Hoult, Campaigns Ambassador

2. Start the stop

A Smokefree UK will not be possible without adequate and sustained funding.

We need the UK Government to fund public health campaigns and stop smoking services to help people stop smoking.

Stop smoking services provide the best chance of stopping successfully. But only 67% of local authorities in England commissioned a specialist service open to all local people who smoke in 2021, largely due to financial pressure.

Other important aspects of tobacco control, including media campaigns and trading standards staff that monitor and enforce illicit tobacco, also need more funding. And it’s not just charities and organisations (including us) that think this – it was one of the 4 core recommendations in Javed Khan’s Independent Review of Tobacco control for England.

There could be a number of different ways to best set up, regulate and spend a fund like this. One potential idea we like is a ‘polluter pays’ model – a fixed annual charge on tobacco companies, making them pay for the damage their products cause, but without letting them influence how the funds are spent.

The four largest tobacco manufacturers make around £900 million of profits in the UK each year – as the manufacturers of such a harmful product, we think the industry – not the taxpayer – should be made to foot the bill.

Inequalities in smoking

The need to tackle smoking is paramount, particularly if we are serious about addressing health inequalities in our society.

Smoking still causes around 54,300 cancer cases a year in the UK – that’s around 150 cases of cancer every day. But the burden of smoking is not felt equally. People in routine and manual occupations in England are around 2.5 times more likely to smoke than those in managerial and professional occupations. People from more deprived groups also find it more difficult to stop smoking. Other groups at higher risk of tobacco related harm include the LGBTQ+ community, people with mental health conditions and people experiencing homelessness.

There are lots of reasons people smoke. For people who smoke it’s not as simple as avoiding cigarettes because they’re unhealthy and costly. Some people are more likely to try a cigarette than others, and often factors outside of our control can make all the difference. For many, that first puff paves the way to long-lasting addiction.

There are also big differences in progress in reducing smoking rates across the population. In England for example, only the least deprived areas are projected to be smoke free by 2030, with the most deprived groups not set to meet it until the mid 2040s.

People born today in England’s richest areas are expected live on average up to a decade longer than those in the poorest. And smoking is the single biggest driver of this inequality.

It’s shocking and unjust that amidst the current cost of living crisis, smoking continues to pull our most disadvantaged communities further into poverty by costing them billions each year.

That’s why all four Governments across the UK have a responsibility to protect people who are at higher risk of tobacco-related harm, and must act quickly to bring down smoking rates across the board, not just within the least deprived areas.

A Smokefree UK would help establish a new norm. Anyone like me who has sat with parents and grandparents dying of cancer will know the emotional strain, and the financial cost of treating health problems caused by smoking.

(Smoking) was viewed as normal when I was a teenager, but attitudes can be changed, and the normal can become unthinkable.

Dave Kelsall, Campaigns Ambassador

How you can get involved

A world without cigarettes might be hard to imagine right now. What’s equally hard to imagine is a modern society that allows the sale of a product that kills the majority of its users when used exactly as recommended by the manufacturer. We must change how we view this industry, and it’s time we lose the tobacco all together.

Javed Khan, author of the Independent Review on Tobacco said, “if cigarettes had never existed and were invented tomorrow, what would happen?” The answer is easy. They would not be legalised.

Put simply, achieving a Smokefree UK will help create a society where everyone can live longer and better lives.

Government action has brought down smoking rates in the past, and it is essential to doing so in the future too. And you can help make that happen.

A good place to start is by messaging your MP to ask them to pledge to be a ‘Smokefree MP’. Email them today and tell them why tackling smoking and preventing cancer matters to you and their pledge of support will help us build pressure on the Government in Westminster to act.

The aim to make the UK smokefree is an amazing target. I am proud to work with CRUK and hope that together we can make the UK completely smokefree.

Lynne Phillips, Campaigns Ambassador