Almost 600 under-16s take up smoking every day in the UK, suggests research published online in Thorax.
The calculations indicate that in London alone, the daily tally is 67 - more than two classrooms-full.
The researchers say the figures reinforce the importance of introducing standardised packaging for cigarettes, which the government is considering, and other measures to reduce smoking uptake in children.
The researchers wanted to estimate smoking uptake among children to inform prevention campaigns and focus attention and resources on what they say is a “child protection issue”.
Smoking at a young age is an even greater risk to health than starting later in life, they say. Smoking at a young age affects lung development and boosts the risk of progressive lung disease.
In addition, people who start smoking before the age of 15 run a higher risk of developing lung cancer than those who take up the habit later on, even if the cumulative number of cigarettes smoked is smaller.
Dr Nick Hopkinson, from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Unit at Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust and Imperial College London, said: “Smoking is one of the biggest causes of preventable deaths worldwide. Children are especially vulnerable to long-term health effects, so it’s important that we take action to reduce smoking uptake further.
“These figures emphasise the importance and urgency of introducing standardised packaging for tobacco products to prevent children being lured into nicotine addiction. That should happen alongside other measures that are recognised to be effective, like putting all cigarettes out of sight in all shops, which is due to be implemented in England in Spring 2015, and the extension of smoke free legislation to private vehicles. Banning additives such as menthol which make cigarettes more palatable for children is also an important objective.”
The findings have been produced by a collaboration between the NIHR Respiratory Biomedical Research Unit at Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust and Imperial College London, Cancer Research UK and Action on Smoking and Health.
The analysis is based on data taken from the 2011 ‘Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England’ survey, which targets schoolchildren in England between the ages of 11 and 15 every year.
Questionnaires were completed by 6519 children in 219 schools. By comparing the numbers of current smokers - regular and occasional - with smoking rates among the same age band surveyed the previous year, the researchers were able to estimate the numbers of 11 to 15 year olds who started to smoke in 2010-11 in the UK.
To calculate the number of new child smokers for each locality, this estimate of 207,000 was split across geographical areas according to population size and smoking prevalence among adults, on the assumption that there would be more child smokers where the proportion of adult smokers was high. Parental smoking is one of the strongest predictors of smoking among children.
The analysis indicated that among the 3.7 million children aged between 11 and 15 in the UK, an estimated 463 start smoking every day in England, 55 in Scotland, 30 in Wales and 19 in Northern Ireland.
Of 74,000 children in this age group in Birmingham, nine take up smoking every day, while the daily tally in London is 67 out of 458,000 children.
The authors acknowledge that as their figures are calculated from survey data, they can only be approximate, but they say the fact that they are regional might be more helpful to healthcare professionals and regulators.
Hundreds of respiratory specialists wrote to the British Medical Journal last week in support of the introduction of standardised packaging of tobacco products.
‘Child uptake of smoking by area across the UK’ Thorax, 5 December 2013. doi 10.1136/thoraxjnl-2013-204379
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