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Smoking prevalence among adults has declined by half since 1974

Men still more likely to smoke than women, but the gap has narrowed

The proportion of adults who smoke cigarettes has fallen significantly over the last four decades. In 1974, 45% of the population aged 16 and older were cigarette smokers compared with 20% in 2011, according to data from the General Lifestyle Survey (GLF), formerly known as the General Household Survey (GHS).

This decline since the 1970s is most likely explained by rising health concerns and increased awareness about the dangers of smoking. The implementation of new initiatives and interventions aimed at stopping people smoking may also have contributed to the overall declining trend.

In particular, in the 2000s, cigarette advertising on billboards and in the press and magazines was banned, restrictions on advertising at the point of sale were implemented, and regulations came into force banning displays in shops. Legislation prohibiting smoking in enclosed work and public places was also introduced, and it became illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18.

Comparing smoking rates among men and women

While men remain more likely to smoke than women, the gap has narrowed from a 10 percentage point difference to a 2 percentage point difference. In 1974, 51% of men smoked cigarettes compared with 41% of women, whereas 21% of men smoked cigarettes in 2011 compared with 19% of women.

Figure 1.1: Prevalence of cigarette smoking by sex, 1974 to 2011, Great Britain <1>,<2>

Prevalence of cigarette smoking by sex, 1974 to 2011, Great Britain 1,2

Figure 1.1: Prevalence of cigarette smoking by sex, 1974 to 2011, Great Britain <1>,<2>
Source: General Lifestyle Survey - Office for National Statistics


  1. For 1998 unweighted and weighted data are shown for comparison purposes. Weighted data are not available before this point.
  2. The survey was not run in 1997/98 or 1999/00. A linear trend has been drawn between the data point before and after these years.

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The number of cigarettes consumed by smokers of both sexes has remained relatively unchanged. Among male smokers, the average number smoked per day has slowly declined since the early 1980s, from 17 in 1982 to 13 in 2011. Among female smokers, this number has stayed constant since 1974 at between 12 and 14 cigarettes a day.

In the last 20 years there has been a notable increase in the proportion of women taking up smoking before the age of 16. In 1992, 28% of women who had ever smoked started before they were 16 years of age; in 2011 the figure was 37%. During this same period, the proportion of men who had ever smoked and had started smoking before the age of 16 has remained constant at approximately 40%.

Current dependency levels similar to 1992

To determine their interest in giving up and the extent of their dependence, the GLF asks smokers whether they would like to stop smoking, whether they think they would find it easy or difficult not to smoke for a whole day, and how soon after waking they smoke their first cigarette. There has been little change in the answers given to these questions since they were first asked in 1992.

In 2011, 63% of smokers said they would like to stop smoking and 60% of smokers felt that it would be either very or fairly difficult to go without smoking for a whole day. Not surprisingly, heavier smokers were more likely to say they would find it difficult; 81% of those smoking 20 or more cigarettes a day did so compared with 32% of those smoking fewer than 10 cigarettes a day.

Among adult smokers, 16% had their first cigarette within five minutes of waking up. Heavy smokers were more likely than light smokers to smoke within five minutes of waking up; 35% of those smoking 20 or more cigarettes did so, compared with only 3% of those smoking fewer than 10 a day.


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Categories: Health of the Population, People, Housing and Households, Personal Finances, People and Places
Content from the Office for National Statistics.
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