The cost of smoking to the UK’s economy

It is a well known fact that smoking has a substantial impact on health, but something that is not so often considered is the effect it has on the UK economy. New research from the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC) has found that smoking costs the UK’s economy over £19 billion annually.

About the report
The report entitled ‘Up in smoke: The impact of smoking on health and economic activity’ looks at how smoking impacts not only the economic activity of the individual smoker, but also the UK as a whole.

Smoking rates have been in decline for many years now, currently at an all time low of 14.1% of adults in the UK. While quitting smoking can help alleviate the effect it has on your health, even ex-smokers will live with the lasting effects that come with a smoking habit.

Prof Les Mayhew, Head of Global Research at ILC and Professor of Statistics at The Business School, explains;

“It’s no secret that smoking is bad for our health, but what is lesser known is that it’s also bad for our economy. We need people to stay healthy for longer and despite a decline in smoking we are not out of the woods yet.”

Smoking not only results in severe health conditions such as cancers, but can also lower the immune system of smokers, making them more susceptible to illness. This means that throughout their working life, smokers are likely to need more time off for general illness than non-smokers, lowering their productivity. Not only this, but it also effects the amount of years worked for many smokers and ex-smokers, as it increases disability from illness and disease.

The ILC’s research found that if current and ex-smokers had never smoked, this would have increased the UK’s economy by £19.1 billion a year, or 1.9% of earnings.

Suggestions for the future
In July 2019, the Government announced the aim of going smoke-free in England by 2030. Not only will this have a substantial impact on the general health of the population, but it could also provide a significant boost to the health of our economy.

A really important point that is brought up in the report is how the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the link between our health and the health of our economy. By recognising the importance of prevention, the Government can take advantage of this change in mindset to introduce effective policy for reducing the economic and health implications of smoking.

The report includes a number of recommendations to policy makers that could help prevent the up-take of smoking, and give current smokers further incentive to quit.

Their first recommendation is to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco to 21. Many smokers will tell you that they started smoking at a young age. By raising the legal age it would not only make it harder for young people to purchase tobacco products, but will also mean that people of a legal age to smoke have a higher level of maturity and understanding of the impact this decision could have on their future.

Secondly, they recommend reducing the affordability of tobacco by raising the annual rate of increase in UK tobacco duties from 2% to 5% plus inflation. Many ex-smokers state that the increased cost of cigarettes played a big part in their decision to quit. As tobacco prices rise, the cost of alternative nicotine delivery systems like e-cigarettes remain the same, and for many the prospect of saving money helps encourage a quit attempt.

Finally, the ILC recommend the implementation of a tobacco licensing system for retailers and wholesalers, to help reduce the size of the illicit market.

The role of e-cigarettes
The ILC report also expresses the importance of supporting existing smokers with quitting smoking, a choice that can have a huge impact on their future health. E-cigarettes have already contributed substantially to the declining smoking rates in the UK. With the help of health care authorities we have been able to embrace them as an effective and accessible stop smoking aid, with 2.4 million adults in the UK having quit smoking with the help of an e-cigarette.

Recent research has found that e-cigarettes are more effective at aiding in a successful quit attempt than than NRTs like patches and gum, we spoke about this in our recent post 'New trial finds e-cigarettes more effective than NRT'. With more and more stop smoking services informing patients about e-cigarettes and helping them utilise them in their stop smoking attempt, we hope to continue to see smoking rates decline.

All of the ILC recommendations, when combined with good quality stop smoking services and accessibility of effective quitting aids, could make the goal of a smoke-free future much more attainable. At a time when our economy has already been weakened, it is more important than ever to consider ways to protect it’s growth and longevity.