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Smoking - 50 years of progress - but not worldwide

By Michael Evans - 10 Mar 2012 10:9:0 GMT
Smoking - 50 years of progress - but not worldwide

Smoking cigarette via Shutterstock

Fifty years ago nobody in Britain thought twice about lighting up a cigarette in public. Cinemas, theatres, pubs and public transport were all popular locations where people could relax and enjoy a cigarette.

Tobacco came to Britain in the sixteenth century and wealthy men usually smoked it in pipes. Later snuff became very popular along with cigar smoking, but it was not until cigarette-making machines were invented in the late nineteenth century that tobacco smoking hit the mass market in a big way.

The horrors of the Great War led to a great rise in smoking and by 1919 cigarette smoking was by far the most popular form. Initially it was only men who smoked, but by the 1920s it also became acceptable for women to follow suit.

World War II gave cigarette smoking another tremendous boost and by 1945 consumption peaked at 12 manufactured cigarettes a day for every adult male in the country. This soon tailed off to about 10 a day, where it remained for the next 30 years or so.

It was not until after World War II that women began to smoke in large numbers. In 1945 2.4 cigarettes were being smoked each day for every adult female, but while the level of cigarette smoking for men remained constant during the next 30 years, female consumption nearly trebbled to 7 cigarettes a day.

In 1948, when surveys began, 82% of men smoked, and 65% were cigarette smokers, but smoking has never been a majority habit among women and even at its peak fewer than 44% of adult women were smokers.

By the mid 1960s 70% of the UK male population and 43% of women were regular smokers and smoking was regarded more or less as a fact of life. Cinemas, theatres, pubs, restaurants and public transport were all places where one could relax with a cigarette and nobody thought twice about it. Even hospitals and schools were not exempt.

But things were to change. From the early 1950s reports had been appearing about dangers that smoking posed to health, but these were all either ignored or greeted with hostility. Then in March 1962 The Royal College of Physicians published a groundbreaking report Smoking and Health in which they warned the Government about the dangers of smoking-related death and diseases.

This time the warning hit home, the public responded and the Ministry of Health was inundated with anti-smoking ideas.

In 2012 smoking is no longer the norm in Britain, but although numbers of smokers have dramatically decreased, around 10 million British adults still smoke cigarettes, and tobacco consumption continues to be recognised as the UK's single greatest cause of preventable illness and early death.

Latest estimates put the annual number of UK deaths from smoking related diseases at 104,000.

Every year tobacco smoking is estimated to be responsible for approximately one in four cancer deaths; that is around 44,000. 86% of lung cancer deaths in the UK are a result of smoking, but smoking also causes cancers in many other parts of the body. These include cancers of the oral cavity, the nasal cavity, the pharynx, larynx and oesophagus; the pancreas, stomach, liver, bladder, kidney, cervix, bowel and ovary. It can also cause myeloid leukaemia.

Numbers of smokers vary according to age group. In the 1990s the 20 to 34-year-olds made up the largest group, with 48% being regular smokers, but by 2009 this number had fallen to 26%, roughly the same as for the 35-49 age group. It is in the over 60 age group where numbers have fallen most. 34% of this age group were regular smokers in 1974, but by 2009 this number had fallen to 14%.

Numbers of smokers also vary according to socio-economic grouping. In 2009, 29% of adults in what are described as routine and manual households were regular smokers, while for those in managerial and professional households the figure was only 15%.

Geographical region can also influence the numbers of smokers within the UK. In Scotland the figure is 25%, followed by Wales with 23% and England with 21%. There are also more smokers in the North West of England than in the South West.

Smoking prevalence varies widely around the world, where there are currently around 1.3 billion smokers, 80% of whom live in low or middle-income countries. It is estimated that by 2025/2030 around 10 million people will die each year from smoking-related diseases and 70% of these deaths will be in developing countries.

Asia contains a third of the world's population, but has over half of the world's male smokers. Individual levels are fearfully high. 53% of Japanese males are smokers, while the figure for China is 63% and for Vietnam 73%. In China alone, 600,000 people die each year from smoking-related diseases and it is estimated that if current smoking rates continue, one in three of China's young men will die as a result.

In Britain during the last 50 years a rise in awareness of smoking's very real danger to health has helped to bring an encouraging fall in the numbers of regular smokers, but is clear that the problems associated with smoking-related diseases are still very much with us.

Worldwide the surface has hardly been scratched.

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Topics: Smoking