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By Luke Lambert (Senior Communications Officer), Published

The negative impact of smoking on health inequalities in the UK means even if smoking stopped tomorrow, the full health benefits would not be seen until 40 years down the line.

New research shows that the maximum improvement that could be expected from a complete cessation of smoking is only around 2.5 years rather than the full 6.3 years which separate smokers and those that have never smoked.

The research by the International Longevity Centre (ILC) and Bayes Business School, titled ‘Levelling Up – The Great Health Challenge’, shows how health inequalities, particularly smoking, impact the UK’s health and working futures. The findings state that the UK Government’s target of levelling up healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 is unachievable, and can only be reached if much bolder policies are adopted.

The conclusions come ahead of the release of a Government white paper on health disparities, and the 2017-2022 Tobacco Control Plan – both of which are to be released this year – which aims to make England ‘smoke free’ by 2030. Most worryingly, the report says that even if all smoking ceased tomorrow, the impact could take 40 years to work through.

The report, led by Professor Les Mayhew of Bayes Business School, highlights that life expectancy has increased by more years than healthy years since 2001, with the time spent in ill health increasing as a result. Factors contributing to this include an ageing population, negative health behaviours such as smoking, and the success of the NHS in keeping people alive.

To put the research into perspective, smoking is the major cause of death and ill health in the UK. It is implicated in deaths from cancer, heart, and respiratory disease accounting for about 75,000 deaths a year in England and half a million hospital admissions (92,000 deaths UK-wide). It affects all ages: For example, the health of a 34-year-old smoker is the same as that of someone aged 40 who has never smoked.

The geography of smoking, and deaths associated to lung cancer, is also strongly correlated with health expectancy and with deprivation. The local authorities with the highest prevalence of smoking, as ranked by the Office for National Statistics on their smoking index, are Blackpool, Kingston upon Hull, Barking and Dagenham. Those ranked lowest are Richmond upon Thames and Windsor.

Professor Mayhew, Head of Global Research at ILC and Professor of Statistics at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), said there is no silver bullet in untangling the web of how to solve this problem.

“The challenges involved in improving healthy life expectancy include the interconnected risk factors associated with smoking, such as tackling mental illness, drug abuse, obesity, poor housing, and deprivation among others. It means that while tackling smoking head-on is a welcome and necessary step, it is only the beginning of a much bigger journey towards levelling up.

“With differences of up to 15 years in health expectancy between the healthiest and least healthy areas, the scope to level up is definitely there – the policies just need to be much bolder in order to succeed.”

'Levelling Up – The Great Health Challenge is by Professor Les Mayhew, Professor of Statistics at Bayes Business School and Head of Global Research at the International Longevity Centre; Professor Andrew Cairns, Professor in Actuarial Mathematics at Heriot Watt University; and Dr Mei Sum Chan, Health Analytics Consultant at Lane Clark & Peacock.

Ends

Notes to editors

  1. Smoking is also hugely damaging for the economy; if current or ex-smokers had never smoked, overall earnings could be 1.9 per cent higher, boosting the UK economy by £19.1 billion every year. Previous ILC research found that men are also 7.2 per cent more likely to be economically active than current or former smokers at age 50. The study also found that women’s health was less impacted by smoking than men’s, probably because they smoke less over the life course.
  2. According to ONS data of March 2022, those living in the most deprived areas have a substantially higher rate of death from avoidable causes in 2020 than those living in the least deprived areas; deaths due to COVID-19 and other causes such as drugs and alcohol were notably higher in the most deprived areas. The gap in avoidable mortality between the most and least deprived areas widened to its highest level since 2004 for males, and highest since the data began in 2001 for females.
  3. ILC will be hosting a webinar on Tuesday 14 June 2022 to discuss the findings and implications of the research. To register your interest, email events@ilcuk.org.uk.