THE number of adults smoking in England has fallen below 20 per cent for the first time in probably 80 years, researchers have said.
But the figures show wide regional variations, with smoking least popular in London - 17 per cent are smokers - and Yorkshire coming out top at almost 24 per cent.
Health experts in Yorkshire say that in some less well-off communities smoking rates remain around 30 per cent.
In a letter to the British Medical Journal, experts from University College London said they hoped the 20 per cent figure would motivate more people to quit with the help of NHS stop smoking services.
Senior research fellow Jamie Brown and colleague Robert West looked at the findings of a large national surveillance study which has been tracking smoking prevalence in England since 2006.
They said looking at historical data together with these findings suggest less than a fifth of adults now smoke.
“For the first time in probably 80 years, smoking prevalence in England has fallen below 20 per cent,” they said.
“Smoking was rare at the start of the 20th century but increased relentlessly until the publication of Smoking And Health in 1962, by which time over 70 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women smoked.
“The decline in prevalence started in the 1970s and has since averaged 0.6 per cent a year. In 2013 it was slightly higher, at 0.8 per cent.”
The researchers said “much is still to be done”, particularly around the fact people from lower socioeconomic groups are more likely to smoke.
“However, we hope that breaking the 20 per cent barrier will motivate smoking cessation efforts across the country, including making more use of our stop smoking services,” they said.
Also in the BMJ, Ruth Malone and colleagues from the University of California argued it is essential for the UK “to extend its focus beyond tobacco control to plan a tobacco-free future”.
They pointed to a major “lack of congruence between the way cigarettes are regulated and the regulation of many other dangerous products”.
But they said “too many public health professionals remain fearful of even suggesting that to end the epidemic these products should, at some point, no longer be easy to buy”.
In a forthcoming report commissioned by Cancer Research UK, the researchers call on the UK to “undertake a serious effort to bring to an end the UK tobacco disease epidemic”.
Even if smoking stopped in its entirety now, there would still be decades of high healthcare costs attributable to smoking, they say. And they say the UK fails to use mass media to “denormalise” the tobacco industry.
They conclude: “If the public health sector, including government, does not begin the endgame conversation, no one else will. For the sake of future generations we should start now.”
Thembi Nkala, of the British Heart Foundation, said: “It’s fantastic to see the number of smokers in England finally drop below one fifth.
“However, there are still millions of smokers across the nation and smoking remains the number one cause of premature avoidable death in the UK.”
Dr Ian Cameron, Leeds Council’s director of public health, said: “There has been a lot of progress made in Leeds and across West Yorkshire with reducing smoking. Rates in Leeds have reduced from over 30 per cent ten years ago to 23 per cent now. However we know that it still remains a significant health issue for the city and there are parts of the city where around a third of adults are smokers, as well as other areas where less than a tenth smoke and we are determined to help anyone who wants to quit.
“We know stopping smoking can be challenging and Leeds has one of the best stop smoking services in the country, helping over 3,000 people last year to quit. Smokers save on average £1,500 per year from not smoking in addition to the health benefits.”