Research pioneered by the International Longevity Centre (ILC) and Bayes Business School suggests that a complete UK smoking ban would not improve healthy life expectancy for at least 40 years.
The team’s study, titled ‘Levelling Up – The Great Health Challenge’, identified that the negative impacts of smoking on health inequalities mean that even if a UK smoking ban was implemented tomorrow and the entire country stopped smoking, the full health benefits would not be observed for 40 years.
The investigation elucidates that the maximum improvement that could be expected from a full UK smoking ban would be 2.5 years, not the 6.3 years of life expectancy difference that separates smokers and non-smokers. Moreover, the results highlight that the UK Government’s target of levelling up healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 is unachievable – and could only be attainable if more robust and drastic policies are implemented.
Prevalence of smoking in the UK
Smoking is a significant cause of death and ill-health in the UK and is attributed to deaths from cancer, heart, and respiratory disease, causing 75,000 deaths annually in England alone, 92,000 deaths across the UK and half a million hospital admissions. The dangerous habit affects all ages; for example, a smoker who is 34 has the same level of health as a 40-year-old non-smoker.
Location within the UK also plays an influential factor in smoking prevalence. The local authorities with the highest amounts of smoking, according to data from the Office for National Statistics’ smoking index, are Blackpool, Kingston upon Hull, Barking and Dagenham. In contrast, the lowest ranking is Richmond upon Thames and Windsor.
Outcomes of a UK smoking ban
The novel research comes before an imminent UK Government white paper on health disparities and the 2017-2022 Tobacco Control Plan, which are scheduled to be released this year. These initiatives aim to create a ‘smoke-free’ England by 2030. However, the team’s research reinforces that these efforts may not be the most effective in enhancing healthy life expectancy, as even a complete UK smoking ban would not achieve the desired outcomes for nearly half a century.
The team’s findings identified that life expectancy has increased by more years than healthy years since 2001, meaning time spent in ill-health has increased. The factors influencing this are an ageing population, negative health behaviours (smoking), and the NHS mitigating deaths.
Professor Mayhew, Head of Global Research at ILC and Professor of Statistics at Bayes Business School, concluded: “The challenges involved in improving healthy life expectancy include the interconnected risk factors associated with smoking, such as tackling mental illness, drug abuse, obesity, poor housing, and deprivation among others. It means that while tackling smoking head-on is a welcome and necessary step, it is only the beginning of a much bigger journey towards levelling up.
“With differences of up to 15 years in health expectancy between the healthiest and least healthy areas, the scope to level up is definitely there – the policies just need to be much bolder in order to succeed.”