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Hard-core smokers

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Mark Easton | 15:20 UK time, Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Since the ban on smoking in public places swept across Britain in 2006 and 2007, the number of adults who smoke has fallen by about one million.

But the 11 million remaining are a steadfast band - banished from offices, pubs and restaurants, you will see them huddled in doorways, sheltering from wind and rain as they light up.

Smoker with cigarette

Within this al fresco routine, a camaraderie often develops; a spirit of solidarity and doggedness with undertones of rebellion. Loyalty grows, to each other and perhaps to the weed which unites them.

Today's attitudes survey from the Office for National Statistics finds that among Britain's smokers, there is a larger proportion who smoke heavily - up from 24% to 29%.

The proportion of male smokers who consume 20 or more a day has gone up from a quarter to a third. What's more, they are less likely to say they want to quit. Two years ago, 72% of smokers said they planned to give up - now it is 67%.

This is partly because, as smoker numbers fall, a greater proportion of those that do are more reliant on cigarettes and more reluctant to stop. They are, increasingly, the hard core.

But the statistics also suggest that the total number of smokers who want to give up has fallen from about 8.6m in 2007 to 7.4m last year - a drop, therefore, of around 1.2m people.

Why? The smoking population is a fluid group including new smokers and those who considered stopping but changed their mind. So one cannot say that a million people who were once determined to quit have now decided to smoke to their (probably early) grave.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether an unexpected consequence of strict rules on smoking has been to harden attitudes.

Smokers may increasingly feel like victims of social exclusion and discrimination, a recipe for radicalisation in other contexts. Denied their legal pleasures in public, except under uncomfortable even humiliating conditions, it is conceivable that frustration and resentment manifests itself in a determination to smoke more not less.

The public smoking ban, for which today's survey finds overwhelming support among all but the heaviest smokers, coincides with a significant drop in the proportion of adults who consume tobacco. Broadly, smoking rates were stuck at around 24% for six years or so but the last two have been recorded at 22%.

In public health terms this must be a welcome change, but achieving further reductions will probably need to come from convincing fewer young people to take up cigarettes rather than hoping the hard core can be bullied into abstinence.


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