The latest official figures suggest that 17% of young adults (the 16–24 age range) smoke tobacco, averaging around 10 cigarettes a day (the actual question is “do you smoke tobacco at all?”). For these young people a substantial part of their money is, quite literally, going up in smoke.
It is no secret that much of the cost of tobacco is due to Government taxation. Yet ASH Scotland has shown that the around £1billion raised in tobacco taxes in Scotland each year is justifiable, because it just covers the societal costs incurred by smoking (in terms of healthcare, lost productivity and other harms).
Smoking, then, is a costly business. But how much of this cost falls on young adults?
The National Records of Scotland estimate there are roughly 600,000 young adults in Scotland. With 17% of them smoking tobacco that makes 100,000 young adults who smoke. We know only too well that they are more likely to live in disadvantaged communities, and why this is the case.
ASH Scotland recently calculated that the average price paid for a cigarette (allowing for proportions of hand-rolling tobacco, and of cheap, illicit product) is 35 pence. So ten cigarettes a day averages out to £3.50 a day, £24.50 a week, £105 a month and £1260 a year.
This many young adults, and that much money, means we’re looking at a staggering £126 million pounds lost to young adults in Scotland every year because of smoking.
On the one hand this tells us that that reducing the smoking rate by one percentage point (from 17% to 16%) puts £7.5 million pounds directly into the pockets of young adults in Scotland, with that money well targeted to the disadvantaged groups who need it most, and repeating year after year. There is a strong case for acting to reduce smoking amongst this group, simply on these economic arguments.
But with smoking uptake continuing through these young adult years we need to view the issue from the other direction too. Every time the smoking rate increases — from 12% of 15 year-olds (who are either “regular” or “occasional” tobacco smokers) to around 24% by their 25th birthday — substantial sums of money are lost to young adults, and especially to those who can least afford to lose it.
When we spoke to young adults, to inform development of the BeFree campaign, they told us of their aspirations — driving lessons, their own flat, going to college, money for socialising….. — ambitions that are harder to achieve without money, and hence that are undermined by smoking. Supporting young adults to remain smoke-free through these transitional years plays a crucial part in helping them to afford the goals and aspirations they set for themselves.
These are the immediate costs, but for those who continue to smoke the burden is ongoing. The cost to the average adult smoker in Scotland is £1600 a year, every year. Research suggests that there are losses in earnings too, because smokers are more likely to be absent from work and take an average of 2.7 extra sick days a year compared to non-smokers. For workers not entitled to sick pay, extra days off would therefore mean a loss of pay. Researchers have also found that smokers are more likely to take early retirement because of chronic disease. We can clearly see that young adults are making decisions on smoking and health now that will have implications throughout their lives.
These burdens are primarily borne by those who are already disadvantaged, so that smoking is not just an effect of wealth inequality, but a cause of it too.
(Note — the figures quoted above are all averages, so that some young people will spend less, while others will spend more. As smoking rates continue to rise in the young adult years, the numbers will be lower for the younger ages and higher for older groups.)