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Publication, Part of

Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England, 2021

National statistics

National Statistics

Current Chapter

Part 1: Smoking prevalence and cigarette consumption

Correction to sources of information on drug use data (part 10)

Following the initial publication it was discovered that around half of pupil responses to the question on 'Sources of helpful information about drug use' had been excluded from the results. This was corrected and the affected tables and commentary have been re-issued. 

In Part 10: Young people and drugs: the context, the affected outputs were tables 10.19, 10.20 and 10.21, and the associated chart and commentary in the section on 'Sources of helpful information about drug use'. Though some of the quoted figures changed by 0-3 percentage points, there was no effect to the order of contribution of the most common sources.

4 November 2022 00:00 AM

Part 1: Smoking prevalence and cigarette consumption


Extensive research has demonstrated the harmful effects that smoking has on health. Smoking contributes to a variety of health conditions, including cancers and respiratory, digestive and circulatory diseases, whilst also impairing the development of teenage lungs. Moreover, smoking causes more preventable deaths than any other single cause; in 2019, 74,600 preventable deaths in England were estimated to be attributed to smoking:

NHS Digital: Statistics on Smoking, England – 2020

Tobacco use remains one of the most significant public health challenges in the UK. One of the national ambitions in the government’s tobacco control plan published in 2017, was to reduce the number of 15 year olds who regularly smoke to 3% or less by 2022.  This ambition was measured via the Smoking, Drinking and Drugs survey.

Tobacco control plan for England

All pupils were asked about their cigarette smoking behaviour. Pupils were categorised in three ways based on the responses given:

  • Regular smokers (defined as usually smoking at least one cigarette per week).
  • Occasional smokers (defined as usually smoking less than one cigarette per week).
  • Non-smokers.

The term ‘current smoker’ used in this report includes regular and occasional smokers.

‘Ever smoked’ includes ‘current smokers” plus ‘ex-smokers” and those who have ‘tried smoking once’.

This part includes information on smoking prevalence, patterns of cigarette consumption, and factors associated with regular smoking.

Pupils who have ever smoked

Pupils who have ever smoked, by year

In 2021, 12% (confidence interval 10-13%) of 11-15 year old pupils had ever smoked, down from 16% of pupils in 2018, and is the lowest level ever recorded by this survey. 

There has been a steady decline since 1996, when 49% of pupils had smoked at least once.


Smoking status of pupils who have ever smoked

The 12% of pupils who had ever smoked consisted of regular smokers (1% of pupils), occasional smokers (2%), those who used to smoke (2%), and those who have tried smoking (7%).

Regular and current (regular plus occasional) smoking prevalence are covered further in the following sections.


Pupils who have ever smoked, by sex and age

Compared to 2018 there was a drop in the proportion ever having smoked for both boys and girls, though the drop was greater for boys (from 16% to 10%).

Girls were now more likely to have ever smoked than boys; 13% of girls compared to 10% of boys. 

The proportion of pupils who had ever smoked increased with age from 2% of 11 year olds, to 25% of 15 year olds. However, the proportion for 15 years olds has dropped from 31% in 2018.

Pupils who are current smokers

Pupils who are current smokers, by year

In 2021, 3% (confidence interval 2-4%) of pupils were classified as current smokers. This is a fall from 5% in 2018, and continues a general decline since 1996, when 22% of pupils were current smokers.


Pupils who are current smokers, by sex and age

Prevalence of current smoking was  2% for boys and 4% for girls (not a statistically significant difference).

The proportion of current smokers increased with age: from less than 1% of 11 year olds to 9% of 15 year olds.


Factors associated with current smoking

A logistic regression model was used to explore which characteristics  might be associated with current smoking. This identifies associations, not causes; in other words, factors which identify pupils with an increased or decreased likelihood of being smokers. See Appendix B for more information on the regression model used.

The 8 factors (explanatory variables) shown below had a significant association with current smoking. The size of the circles represents an estimate of the relative contribution to the model. See Appendix B3.4 for details of how this has been determined (additionally data table 1.10 shows the odds ratios for each possible value of each variable in the model).

It was estimated that e-cigarette use had the strongest association, followed by drug use, and having friends who smoke. 

Pupils who are regular smokers

Pupils who are regular smokers, by year

In 2021, the proportion of pupils who were classified as regular smokers has dropped to 1% (confidence interval 0.2-0.7%), down from 2% in 2018.

The government's tobacco control plan aims to reduce the number of 15 year olds who regularly smoke to 3% or less. In 2021, 3% of 15 year olds were regular smokers, down from 5% in 2018, and from 30% in 1996.


Pupils who are regular smokers, by sex and age

Prevalence of regular smoking was the same for boys and girls (1%).

Regular smoking prevalence was less than 1% for all ages, expect 15 year olds for whom it was 3%.

Smoking in the last week

Smoked cigarettes in the last week, by sex and age

This measure differs from regular smoking as it may include some occasional smokers who had smoked in the last week, and may exclude some regular smokers who did not smoke in the last week.

2% of pupils said they had smoked in the last week, down from 4% in 2018. 

2% of boys and 3% of girls smoked in the last week, which is not a statistically significant difference.

The proportion increased with age, from less than 1% of 11 to 13 year olds, to 7% of 15 year olds.


Total cigarettes smoked in the last week (regular smokers)

A third (33%) of regular smokers said that they had smoked more than 20 cigarettes in the last week. This is down from 45% in 2018.

Mean cigarettes smoked in last week (regular smokers)

In 2021, mean consumption of cigarettes in the last week by regular smokers was 19.5, down from 24.7 in 2018, and from 44.1 in 2007.

Impact of Covid lockdowns on smoking prevalence

Pupils who are current smokers, by how many times they met people outside of home/school in the last four weeks

Pupils who met people outside of home/school more often in the last four weeks were more likely to be current smokers; 9% for pupils who had met other people every day, compared to 3% for pupils who met people once a week, and 1% for pupils who had never met other people.



Pupils who are current smokers, by how they took part in school learning in the last school year

Pupils who continued to go to school all the time in the last school year were more likely to be current smokers (8%), than those who had studied at home during lockdowns or all/most of the time (2%).


Estimates of smoking from other data sources

The Health Survey for England (HSE) is an annual survey carried out in the respondent’s home.  We would expect the estimates from HSE to be lower than SDD as children seem to be less likely to admit to risky behaviours such as smoking, drinking and drug taking when completing surveys at home.  This is evident in the 2019 HSE results which are much lower than those from SDD, with 10% of 13-15 year olds saying they had ever smoked.

Health Survey for England 2019

Estimates for Scotland are available from the Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey (SALSUS).  SALSUS is also carried out in schools under exam conditions but it only covers 13 and 15 year olds.  SALSUS showed that in 2018 2% of 13 year olds and 7% of 15 year olds in Scotland were regular smokers compared to 1% and 5% respectively from SDD in England in 2018.  

Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey

Estimates from Wales are available from the Student Health and Wellbeing In Wales report, which like SDD covers children in years 7 to 11. In 2019/20 the survey showed that 4% of young people were current smokers, which compares to 3% of pupils in England from SDD 2021.

Student Health and Well-being Survey

Last edited: 4 October 2023 2:20 pm