Tobacco was brought to Europe from the Americas at the end of the 15th century when it was thought to have medicinal qualities. Indeed, as late as the 1940s, tobacco companies used medical personnel such as doctors in advertisements to promote their particular brands of cigarettes.
The active ingredient in cigarettes is nicotine which is a highly addictive alkaloid not dissimilar to caffeine. It is due to their addiction to nicotine that smokers continue to smoke despite commonly being aware of the main health risks. Despite knowing that the nicotine was addictive, tobacco companies denied the fact publicly up to the 1980s. Indeed, the Unites States Surgeon General’s Office did not accept that nicotine was an addictive agent until 1979 such was the lobbying power of the tobacco industry.
In the UK, about 12 million adults currently smoke, with more men (c.28%) than women (c.24%) smoking. Women smoke on average 13 cigarettes per day and men 15 which is thought to be as a result of differences in body size. The number of smokers has fallen dramatically as the public’s awareness of the harmful effects have become known. In the early 1970s, over 50% of men and 40% of women smoked compared to the lower and falling rates of today.
Smoking rates vary little across the UK, though it is accepted that the further north one travels, the more smokers you will encounter. Scotland has a smoking rate of 31% compared with 27% and 25% for Wales and England respectively. There is also a clear demarcation between socio-economic groups with lower class manual workers being more pre-disposed to smoking (over 30%) than professional or higher socio-economic classes (17-20%).
Smoking rates are higher amongst lower adult age groups with the 20 to 24 year age group having the highest incidence of smoking at around 36%. Only 15% of the over 60s smoke and only 8% of the over 65s which reflects the fact that many older smokers quit or die by the time they reach this age group! Research has shown that around a quarter of smokers will not reach retirement age as a result of terminal disease caused by smoking.
Smoking rates amongst teenagers differ considerably from young adults in that only around 16% of schoolboys and 26% of schoolgirls smoke. It is thought that the (incorrect) belief that smoking can aid slimming or reduce appetite promotes smoking amongst girls who are more conscious of their appearance. Some commentators argue that so called supermodels set a bad example, as they are predominantly seen to be smokers too.
Publicity surrounding the ill effects of smoking, coupled with both government sponsored and charity driven education and stop smoking campaigns have had an effect on smoking rates. Research has shown that over 20% of women and 30% of men are ex-smokers. This research has also shown that between 70% and 90% of current smokers would like to quit the habit primarily in response to the health effects.
Indeed, the motivation for quitting is strong with over 114,000 smokers dying every year as a result of smoking induced illnesses. Singularly, smoking is the biggest identifiable killer after heart disease in the western world. Five times more people die every year as a result of smoking than all of those from traffic accidents, poisoning and drug overdoses, alcohol related liver diseases, murder, manslaughter, suicide and HIV/AIDS.
It is widely accepted that half of all smokers will die prematurely as a result of smoking although many commentators argue that the other half that don’t die early lead considerably less healthy lives in their latter years.
Smoking is responsible for about 30% of all cancer deaths including about 85% of lung cancer deaths. The other 15% of lung cancer deaths can be encouraged through passive smoking although the asbestos and other industries have been found to be responsible for much. 50% of aortic anyeurism heart disease deaths and at least 80% of emphysema and bronchitis can be solely attributed to tobacco consumption.
Polls have shown that the vast majority of the population, smokers, ex-smokers and non-smokers alike all underestimate the dangers of both smoking and passive smoking. Quitting smoking remains the single biggest benefit a smoker can make to their potential future health and those of the people closest to them.