Skip to main content

Household survey shows decline in numbers of children and young people smoking and drinking

The 2015 Health Survey for England2 (HSE) found that 16 per cent3 of children aged 8 to 15 reported ever having an alcoholic drink4. This is the lowest level ever reported since the HSE began, down from the highest point of 45 per cent in 2003.

The figures, published today by NHS Digital, also show that the proportion of 8 to 15 year olds who reported that they had ever smoked a cigarette5 has decreased from 19 per cent in 2003 to 4 per cent in 2015.

The Health Survey for England (HSE) gathers information from adults and children to monitor trends in the nation's health. The 2015 survey includes information on adult health and social care and, for this survey, the number of 2 to 15 year olds included in the survey was increased to enable a specific focus on child health issues.

In 2015, 28 per cent of children aged 2 to 15 were either overweight (14 per cent) or obese (14 per cent). The proportion of boys who were overweight or obese (30 per cent) was higher than the proportion of girls who were overweight or obese (26 per cent).

The surveys show that the prevalence of childhood obesity6 in England increased between 1995, when it was first measured,  and 2005, but has remained relatively stable at between 14 per cent and 17 per cent since 2008.

Children from lower income household7 were more likely to be obese compared with those from higher income households. 18 per cent of children from households in the lowest income quintile were obese, compared with 9 percent of children living in households in the highest income quintile.

For the 5 to 15 age group, 22 per cent of children met the physical activity8 guidelines of being moderately active for at least 60 minutes every day.

The survey also includes data on adult health such as:

Adult smoking9

  • The prevalence of cigarette smoking has fallen from 28 per cent in 1998 to 18 per cent in 2015
  • In 2015, the proportion of adults who reported that they were current e-cigarette users was 5 per cent. This is an increase from 2013 when it was 3 per cent

Adult obesity10

  • The prevalence of adult obesity has remained between 24 per cent and 27 per cent, for men and women, from 2010 to 2015
  • In 2015 over a quarter of adults (27 per cent) were obese, with a body mass index (BMI) of 30kg/m2 or higher
  • A further 41 per cent of men and 31 per cent of women were overweight, with a BMI of at least 25 but less than 30kg/m2
  • 35 per cent of men and 47 per cent of women had 'very high' waist measurements. This was more common in middle aged and older adults than it was among younger people

Adult drinking11

  • In 2015, 83 per cent of adults had drunk alcohol in the last 12 months. This figure has remained between 82 per cent and 84 per cent since 2011
  • More than half (52 per cent) of adults said they usually drank at least once a week, with men (60 per cent) more likely to have done so than women (44 per cent)
  • Drinking over 14 units in a usual week was most common among men and women aged 55 to 64 (41 per cent and 24 per cent respectively)


Read the full report

Read the trend reports


  1. NHS Digital is the national information and technology provider for the health and care system. Our team of information analysis, technology and project management experts create, deliver and manage the crucial digital systems, services, products and standards upon which health and care professionals depend. Our vision is to harness the power of information and technology to make health and care better. NHS Digital is the new trading name for the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC). We provide 'Information and Technology for better health and care'. Find out more about our role and remit at

  2. HSE provides information about adults aged 16 and over, and children aged 0 to 15, living in private households in England. The survey consists of an interview, followed by a visit from a nurse who takes a number of measurements and samples. Adults and children aged 13 to 15 were interviewed in person, and parents of children aged 0 to 12 answered on behalf of their children. Participants aged 8 and over were asked to fill in a self-completion booklet during the interview covering topics like smoking and alcohol, and for those aged 13-15 also wellbeing. For further information see Methods report Section 3. In 2015 there was a particular focus on the health of children aged 2 to 15, and the sample size in this age group was increased. A total of 8,034 adults (aged 16 and over) and 5,714 children (aged 0 to 15) were interviewed. 5,378 adults and 1,297 children had a nurse visit.

  3. Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number.

  4. Children aged 8 to 15 were asked whether they had ever had a proper alcoholic drink (a whole drink, not just a sip), how old they were when they first did so, their usual frequency of drinking, and when they last had an alcoholic drink. As children may be reluctant to reveal details about their drinking behaviour in the presence of their parents, these questions were asked of children aged 8 to 15 as part of a self-completion questionnaire. There was a subtle change to weighting in 2003, when non-response weighting was introduced and this is footnoted in the tables in the report.

  5. Questions about cigarette smoking were collected by self-completion questionnaire from children to ensure greater privacy and encourage honest answers.

  6. Different growth patterns among boys and girls at each age mean that, unlike for adults, a universal categorisation cannot be used to define childhood overweight and obesity. Assessment of a child's weight status compares their actual BMI with BMI centiles on published growth charts for boys and girls, using sex and age in six month bands. Overweight is defined as a BMI centile greater than or equal to the 85th centile but less than the 95th centile (overweight but not obese). Obese is defined as a BMI centile greater than or equal to the 95th centile. National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) for England, 2015-16 school year was published on 3 November 2016. It provides high-level analysis of the prevalence of 'underweight', 'healthy weight', 'overweight', 'obese' and 'overweight and obese combined' children, in Reception (aged 4-5 years) and Year 6 (aged 10-11 years), measured in state schools in England. See

  7. The HSE uses 'equivalised household income', a measure that takes into account the number of people living in the household. Income brackets are defined as equivalised household income quintiles. Household income is collected and adjusted to take account of the number of persons in the household. All individuals in each household were allocated to the equivalised household income quintile to which their household had been allocated. The highest bracket is the highest quintile - the highest 20 per cent. The lowest income bracket is the lowest quintile - the lowest 20 per cent. See section 8.5.3 in 2015 Methods report report for more details.

  8. The weekly amount of physical activity recommended for health is tailored to specific age groups. Children under 5 who are able to walk unaided are recommended to be active for at least 180 minutes (three hours) per day. Children aged 5 to 15 are recommended to be at least moderately active for at least 60 minutes every day. The figures for ages 5 to 15 exclude school activities.

  9. Questions about cigarette smoking have been asked of adults aged 16 and over as part of the HSE series since its inception in 1991. In 2015, the interview collected information about the use of various tobacco products including cigarettes, cigars and, among men, pipes; however cigar and pipe use is not included within the definition of a current cigarette smoker. 1998 was the year at which a steady decline in smoking prevalence started.

  10. BMI is defined as weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in metres. Adult participants can be classified into the following BMI groups:

    1. BMI (kg/m2) Description

    2. Under 18.5 Underweight

    3. 18.5 to less than 25 Normal

    4. 25 to less than 30 Overweight

    5. 30 and over Obese

A further category, 40kg/m2 and over, representing those morbidly obese, is also shown within the HSE trend tables. BMI does not distinguish between mass due to body fat and mass due to muscular physique, nor the distribution of fat. To measure abdominal obesity, waist circumference is measured, and categorised into desirable/low, high and very high, by sex-specific thresholds.

For men, low waist circumference in this classification is defined as less than 94cm, high as 94-102cm, and very high as greater than 102cm. For women, low waist circumference is less than 80cm, high is 80-88cm and very high is greater than 88cm.

11. Adult respondents were asked if they "ever drink alcohol nowadays" and "do you have an alcoholic drink very occasionally, perhaps for medicinal purposes or on special occasions like Christmas and New Year?". Those who answered yes to one of these questions were classified as people who drink alcohol.

12. For media queries or interview requests please contact or telephone 0300 30 33 888.


Last edited: 23 March 2022 4:12 pm