Smokefree by 2030 – Ambitious or Unrealistic? 

Packet of Cigarettes With Smoking Kills Message on the Box

Back in 2019, the UK government announced bold plans for England to become ‘smokefree’ by 2030, meaning an adult smoking prevalence rate which falls to 5% or less of the population. Fast forward four years and only seven at the time of writing from that target date, is the plan an ambitious achievable one or now unrealistic? 

As we have seen in the past decade, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, smoking numbers are falling, which is a great sign, but at the same time there are still six million smokers in the UK. Below we evaluate what’s happened during the four years, some interesting new developments in the news and whether the UK can achieve the goal of Smokefree by 2030. 

Key Statistics About Smokers and Smoking Cessation

Below are just some of the key stats taken from a recent study by ASH (Action on Smoking and Health Organisation) that highlights how smoking impacts social groups and potentially generations to come if it’s not stopped.  

  • Nearly twice as many smoking-related cancers are diagnosed in the most deprived quintile of the adult population of England every year compared to the least deprived quintile (11,247 vs. 6,200). 
  • People living in social rented housing are 3.8 times more likely to smoke than people who own their properties outright (28.6% vs 7.6%).  
  • People with routine and manual occupations are 2.5 times more likely to smoke than people with managerial and professional occupations (23.2% vs 9.3%). 
  • The prevalence of smoking is 25.8% among people with a long-term mental health condition and people with anxiety and depression,9 and 40.5% among people with serious mental illness. 
  • Women living in the most deprived areas are more likely to smoke throughout pregnancy (66.6% of those who were smokers at conception are still smokers at delivery) than women in the least deprived areas (57.7% are still smokers at delivery). 

Why Has the Smokefree Plan Stalled? 

Only last year, prominent health organisation Cancer Research UK stated that it would be more like 2039 that the target of 5% or less prevalence is achieved by the UK government based on current projections. Currently based on their estimates, this is a more realistic timeline unless policies drastically change, and we witnessed instead a 70% increase in pace on the original set timeline. 

So, what is the UK doing wrong? 

Well, to begin with, they are sending mixed messages to not only key influential figures but the population as a whole by not following through with their initial message that e-cigarettes are 95% safer than smoking cigarettes. Instead, they publish government reports and we also see in the media (free press) all types of sensationalist ‘studies’ that scaremonger the public into believing that vaping is just as dangerous.  

What much of this centres around in the news and reports is a high number of articles about the dangers and easy accessibility of black market vapes and even legally sold disposable vapes, which offer an entry into vaping for young non-smokers.  

Already we’re seeing a clamp down on this with countries like Australia, New Zealand and the US imposing heavy sanctions across the e-cigarette market, which is already heavily regulated. The UK needs to draw a line and back up their initial claim that vaping is significantly safer as an alternative than smoking. 

The plan to get the UK Smokefree by 2030 also requires more funding at the government level for stop smoking services, as well as further campaigns and clear messaging that smoking is an inevitable killer. While the Khan review of 2022 highlighted the steps the UK government needs to take to reduce smoking numbers, we are still yet to see a 2023 tobacco control plan update which was expected midway through the year. 

What is the Latest UK Government Plan for Smoking Cessation? 

Finally, we have seen a positive step from UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with his recent announcement to increase the smoking age by one year every year so that eventually cigarettes are removed altogether. 

With that in mind, the plan would mean a child aged 14 today would never be allowed to buy tobacco. A bold move that may define his time as PM, and interestingly with no opposition from other parties such as Labour. The law has already been set by New Zealand that it will be illegal for anyone born after 2008 to buy a cigarette, so could the UK soon follow? Based on 500,000 admissions to NHS hospitals every year because of cigarettes, clearly something needs to be done. 

As highlighted in the Khan review, other measures need to be followed for the 2030 goal to become fact and not fiction. Unless steps such as improving prevention in the NHS and promoting vaping through government-backed initiatives are not supported, that 2030 target will quickly pass.