Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that each day, around 1,000 US teenagers under the age of 18 become daily cigarette smokers. Now, new research estimates that almost 600 children under the age of 16 begin smoking every day in the UK. This is according to a study published in the journal Thorax.
There is no question that smoking can cause many health problems at any age. But taking up smoking at a younger age can pose even greater risks to health, compared with starting later in life, according to the researchers of this most recent study.
They note that smoking at a younger age can affect lung development and increase the risk of progressive lung disease. Those who take up smoking under the age of 15 also have an increased risk of developing lung cancer, they add.
From this knowledge, the investigators looked to estimate the number of children taking up smoking in the UK each day, in order to boost strategies for preventive measures against the habit.
The study was a collaboration between researchers from the NIHR Respiratory Biomedical Research Unit at Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust, Imperial College London, Cancer Research UK and Action on Smoking and Health in the UK.
Close analysis of UK data
Researchers estimate that almost 600 children aged 11-15 take up smoking every day in the UK, with 463 of these in England.
To reach their findings, the team analyzed data from the 2011 Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among People in the UK survey. This specifically targets schoolchildren in England aged between 11 and 15 each year.
Questionnaires were completed by 6,519 children over 219 schools. The investigators then compared the number of regular and occasional smokers with smoking rates within the same age groups that were surveyed the previous year.
This allowed the research team to estimate the number of children aged between 11 and 15 who started smoking in 2010 and 2011.
They then divided this number over each of the four UK countries (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales), dependent on population size and the prevalence of smoking among adults. This was done to calculate the number of new child smokers for each area.
Data 'should help raise awareness of childhood smoking'
From the analysis, the investigators found that of 3.7 million children aged 11-15 in the UK, 463 start to smoke each day in England, 55 in scotland, 30 in Wales and 19 in Northern Ireland - totaling 567 for the whole of the UK.
When looking at the figures regionally, the researchers found that 67 of 458,000 children aged 11-15 in London, England, take up daily smoking, while 9 of 74,000 children of this age group in Birmingham, England, take up the daily habit.
Commenting on the findings, the researchers say:
"Smoking is among the largest causes of preventable deaths worldwide. The present data should help to raise awareness of childhood smoking and to focus attention on the need to address this important child protection issue."
The investigators note that although their figures are based on survey data and are only estimates, the locality of the estimates should help local authorities and regulators put strategies in place to help combat childhood smoking.
They say this could be in the form of increasing taxation on cigarettes, reducing cigarette smuggling, running well-funded anti-smoking media campaigns, banning smoking in cars and the introduction of plain cigarette packaging to limit children's exposure to branding.
Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, adds:
"While the (UK) Government looks at whether to introduce standardized packaging, this is yet more evidence of the urgent need to wipe glitzy logos and attractive designs from cigarette packaging and help discourage children from this deadly habit."
Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that health warnings on cigarette packets have little impact on deterring teenage smokers from the habit.