smoking and young people

A classroom full of children – 30 young people – take up smoking every day in Wales. Young people are the tobacco industry’s key buyers since they are the only ones who can replace their lifelong, dying, customers.

Position statement

Our aim is to reduce smoking prevalence amongst young people and work to ensure schools, playgrounds and leisure facilities are smokefree. This will not only protect young people from second hand smoke, but also significantly reduce their likelihood of taking up the habit themselves.

Strengthening the laws around smoking in public in Wales will protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke and help to de-normalise smoking for children and young people. This is important as research has shown that children exposed to smoking are significantly more likely to start smoking themselves1. 


Smoking at an early age has been shown to have a severe impact on long-term health. The younger the age someone starts smoking, the greater the harm is likely to be. People who start smoking earlier are often the heaviest smokers later in life. They are also the group likely to be the most dependent and with the lowest chance of quitting2. Research shows that the earlier children become regular smokers and persist in the habit as adults, the greater the risk of developing lung cancer or heart disease, which often lead to early death3.

Children with two parents who smoke are three times more likely to take up the habit. Children with one parent who smoked were further found to be 70% more likely to start smoking. It is also known that two thirds of now-adult smokers took up smoking before the age of 184.


Situation in Wales

Data published in 2019 from the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) survey6  based on 2017/18 figures, shows that 9% of 15-16 year olds smoke at least once a week, a figure that has remained unchanged since 2013/14.  More than 11,000 children still take up smoking each year in Wales.  

The survey results highlight that differences in smoking rates across social classes remain a major concern, as smoking is more than twice as common in adults in the most deprived areas of Wales (21%) compared to the least deprived (13%).

46% of Year 11 students from the most deprived families first tried a cigarette at 13 or younger compared to 34% of the most affluent. In 2013/14, 61% of those from the least affluent families had tried at cigarette at 13 or younger, compared to 38% from the most affluent families.

8% of young people were exposed to smoking during their most recent car journey – a significant decrease compared to 13% in 2013/14. This figure rises however depending on the young person’s background with 5% of those from a more affluent background having been exposed to smoke during their last car journey, compared to 14% from the most deprived families.  In 2013/14 23% of youngsters from a deprived background said someone was smoking the last time they were in a car, compared to 10% of youngsters from a more affluent background.

E-cigarette use has not been shown to vary greatly depending on a child’s background. 28% of those from the least affluent families said they had tried an e-cigarette, compared to 24% from the most affluent.  The figure was the same for both groups in 2013/14 at 12%. Only 4% of those from the least affluent backgrounds and 3% from the most affluent said they used e-cigarettes regularly.


It was announced in May 2018, Wales is set to be the first country in the UK to extend its smoking ban to outdoor areas, with smoke-free areas expected to be in place in hospital groundsschool grounds and playgrounds by summer 2019.  Various health organisations such as Cancer Research UK, British Heart Foundation and ASH Wales have worked tirelessly over the past few years to provide strong evidence to support these laws.

Looking to the future, one of the most powerful control measures outlined in the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017 is the proposed creation of a national register of retailers of tobacco products. This will make it easier for retailers to be identified and monitored – helping to tackle the problem of illegal sales of tobacco to underage young people in Wales.

The Filter Wales

Wales’ only dedicated stop smoking service for young people came to end in March 2018 after five years of youth delivery work. ASH Wales’ “The Filter” project, which tackled smoking amongst teenagers in hard to reach areas where prevalence is highest, ceased to exist due to a lack of funding.

The project was established in 2013 with Big Lottery Funding and due to its success was subsequently funded by Welsh Government for a further 2 years. In the past five years smoking rates among 15 to 16-year-olds in Wales has fallen from 13.5% down to 8.5%, however a classroom of children still takes up smoking every day in Wales.

In total, The Filter project engaged with 12,500 young people at 250 events and delivered hundreds of out-of-school workshops. In addition, 800 youth work professionals were trained to educate others about the deadly habit.

Further Reading

1Hopkinson, NS., Lester-George, A., Ormiston-Smith, N., Cox, A. & Arnott, D. Child uptake of smoking by area across the UK. Thorax 2013. doi:10.1136/thoraxjnl-2013-204379

2Robinson S and Bugler C (2010). Smoking and drinking among adults, 2008. General Lifestyle Survey 2008. ONS.

3Office for National Statistics (2013). General Lifestyle Survey Overview: A report on the 2011 General Lifestyle Survey.

4Royal College of Physicians. Passive smoking and children. London. 2010

5British Medical Association. Breaking the cycle of children’s exposure to tobacco smoke. London. 2007

The Journal of Physiology. Nicotine and the adolescent brain. 2015

7Short- and Long-Term Consequences of Nicotine Exposure during Adolescence for Prefrontal Cortex Neuronal Network Function. 2012

8Welsh Government (2011). Health Behaviour in School-aged Children: initial findings from the 2009/10 survey in Wales.

9Welsh Government (2015). 2013/14 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) Wales: key findings

10Collation of results from My Local Health Service – accessed 14/01/2015

11Sussman S, Ping S, Dent C. A meta-analysis of teen cigarette smoking cessation. Health Psychol. 2006;25(5):549–57

12Müller-Riemenschneider F, Bockelbrink A, Reinhold T, Rasch A, Greiner W, Willich SN. Long-term effectiveness of behavioural interventions to prevent smoking among children and youth. Tobacco Control. 2008;17:301-2