Smoking has long been a public health priority, and particular efforts have been made to reduce smoking among children. As forty per cent of smokers started smoking before the age of 16, discouraging smoking in children is an obvious target for policy interventions.
To this end, over recent years a range of progressive policy measures have focussed on reducing smoking in young people. These measures have met with both success and failure. Figure 1 shows the proportion of 11-15 year-olds in England who reported finding it difficult to buy cigarettes between 1996 and 2014. The legal age for buying cigarettes rose from 16 at the start of this period to 18 in 2007, and is accompanied by a significant increase in reported difficulties buying cigarettes in shops. This could be heralded as a policy success – and is no doubt encouraging – yet, throughout this period it was illegal for the 11-15 year-olds surveyed to buy cigarettes. It is also clear that despite this change, by 2014 only 39 of smokers reported finding it difficult to buy cigarettes in shops. Even if we assume that this is a conservative figure – as young people may not wish to report problems buying cigarettes – it is clear that this legal change had only limited impact. Tightening limits on cigarette sales therefore appeared to have some success, but have by no means fully restricted supply. A ban on the sale of tobacco products from vending machines introduced in 2011 may have been more successful in restricting the availability of cigarettes, but these questions were removed from surveys after 2010 so this possibility remains speculative.
Perhaps more worryingly, while rates of child smoking (both regularly and occasionally) follow a long-term downwards trend, they did not reduce considerably from 2007 onwards (Figure 2). Likewise, the proportion of children who have ever tried smoking – where one-third to one-half of young people who try smoking become regular smokers within two years – declined substantially over this period but did not decrease sharply after 2007 (Figure 3), as might have been expected from this policy change.
Changes in cigarette purchasing laws therefore did appear to restrict the supply of cigarettes to children to some extent. However, these restrictions on supply were by means comprehensive and changes in children smoking and trying smoking following this change were surprisingly small. As 2.6 per cent of young people in England smoked either regularly (1.5 per cent) or occasionally (1.2 per cent) in 2014, further progress is still needed to reach the target of reducing smoking to less than one per cent of 11-15 year-olds by 2020.
Read our briefing note (published today, 21st April 2016) on smoking among young people here.