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County council cabinet member Bill Borrett discusses impact of smoking ban on West Norfolk

A county council cabinet member has welcomed Government plans to create a “smoke-free generation” – but what will it mean for West Norfolk?

At the Conservative Party Conference earlier this month, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced proposals to effectively ban smoking.

He aims to do this by raising the legal age to buy cigarettes year by year – meaning that a child currently aged 14 would never be allowed to smoke by law.

How would a smoking ban affect West Norfolk? We take a look at the numbers. Picture: iStock
How would a smoking ban affect West Norfolk? We take a look at the numbers. Picture: iStock

This would come into effect from 2027. Mr Sunak argued that there is “no safe level of smoking”.

Now, Norfolk County Council’s cabinet member for public health and wellbeing, Cllr Bill Borrett, has backed these plans.

“Public Health welcomes the Government’s announcement to create a smoke-free generation and will be responding to the consultation that is currently open,” he told the Lynn News.

“It is important to remember that smoking is the single biggest preventable cause of ill-health and premature death, and is a modifiable behaviour.”

The most recent numbers available from the Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) Annual Population Survey show that in 2022, 16.7% of West Norfolk residents were smokers.

While that represents a significant decrease from 2021, when 19.3% of people said they smoked, it is still higher than 2020, when that number was as low as 14.4%. Currently, we are in the second-highest tier for smoking prevalence in the UK.

The percentage of smokers in West Norfolk between 2015 and 2022. Graphic: Flourish
The percentage of smokers in West Norfolk between 2015 and 2022. Graphic: Flourish

In our borough, where around 154,000 people live, every 1% counts for roughly 1,500 people. So even though a 2.3% increase compared to 2020 may not seem large, it does mean that approximately 3,500 more people smoke than did before.

People in our borough also take up the habit more than any other Norfolk district except for one. In Yarmouth, 17.6% of residents smoked in 2022.

However, North Norfolk (15.4%) and South Norfolk (9.3%) both had lower proportions of smokers last year – while Breckland (12.2%) and Broadland (8.2%) also had considerably less. In Norwich, 13.5% of people smoked.

Comparing the percentage of smokers in different Norfolk districts. Graphic: Flourish
Comparing the percentage of smokers in different Norfolk districts. Graphic: Flourish

West Norfolk’s numbers in recent years have also been in contrast to a steady nationwide decrease.

In 2011, one in five people in England smoked, but in 2021 this had fallen to 12.5%. These numbers continue to decrease.

Cllr Borrett said: “Smoking impacts people throughout the whole life course: from maternal and foetal health in pregnant smokers; children exposed to smoke in the home; to cancers, respiratory conditions, and heart disease in mid-life, and dementia in old age.

“Smoking substantially increases risks to ill health, causes major disability, reduces quality of life and hastens death.

“The vast majority of smokers tell us they wish they’d never started, of which 80% of them started in their teenage years or childhood.”

So why are people in our borough smoking more than most?

A number of factors are believed to be linked with smoking levels in a particular area. The ONS says these can include relationship status, education level and socio-economic status.

“In 2022, when looking at smoking prevalence by economic activity in the UK, those who were defined as unemployed had a higher proportion of current smokers (20.5%), compared with those who were in paid employment (12.7%), and those who were economically inactive (12.7%),” the ONS states.

We therefore took a look into unemployment numbers in our area, but found little to suggest that we are much worse off than others Norfolk districts.

From June 2022 until June 2023, the latest time period for which data is available, 3.5% of the 89,000 residents here aged 16-64 were unemployed.

This is a lower level than in Norwich (3.9%), North Norfolk (3.6%) and Yarmouth (6.4%).

Comparing the percentage of unemployed residents aged between 16-64 in Norfolk. Graphic: Flourish
Comparing the percentage of unemployed residents aged between 16-64 in Norfolk. Graphic: Flourish

It is higher than in South Norfolk (3.2%), Breckland (2.9%) and Broadland (2.4%).

However, 16,000 (18.2%) of working-age West Norfolk residents were classed as economically inactive during that period – perhaps hinting at why our smoking levels are higher.

The employment status of the 89,000 West Norfolk residents aged 16-64. Graphic: Flourish
The employment status of the 89,000 West Norfolk residents aged 16-64. Graphic: Flourish

The 2021 census also showed that deprivation levels in West Norfolk can be particularly high, with, for example, 39.2% of households in North Lynn saying they are deprived in one dimension.

This means a household is deprived in either employment, education, health and disability or housing, and could therefore be linked to increased smoking numbers.

Cllr Borrett added: “We can all see that there are fluctuations in the recorded smoking prevalence rates in Lynn and West Norfolk between 2020-22.

“Over time these statistics are not significantly different to the national averages, and the overall long-term smoking trend for Lynn and West Norfolk is decreasing.

“However, it is clear that West Norfolk has consistently had higher rates of smoking than other areas of Norfolk, and this is something that Public Health takes account of in our Stop Smoking Service and Stop Smoking Campaigns.”

The jobs available for our population could also be having an impact.

The ONS says that in 2022, smoking prevalence “continued to be higher in routine and manual occupations than in managerial and professional occupations”.

In a largely rural borough, it is fair to say that West Norfolk has a considerable number of manual roles on offer. These include farmers, HGV drivers and construction workers.

If what the ONS says goes, we can only assume that these types of jobs also have an impact on our smoking levels.

“The rate of smoking for Norfolk as a whole is estimated at 13.2%. However we can see that there are areas of Norfolk such as Lynn, Great Yarmouth and Norwich where smoking rates are higher,” Cllr Borrett said.

“Rates of smoking align closely with deprivation and socio-economic status, and smoking rates are also higher amongst certain communities depending on country of birth.”

Analysis: What will this smoking ban mean for West Norfolk?

It will be interesting to see the 2023 smoking numbers for our borough, because the sharp increase after 2020 is certainly not in keeping with national trends.

If numbers decrease again, it could be a sign that less people are taking up the habit and that a potential ban would not be quite as hard-hitting.

However, if they go up once more, it would highlight just how challenging it may be to get residents who smoke to quit.

The Prime Minister’s proposed ban is still in the early stages and will likely need to be passed through parliament, with South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss already among those to have signalled that she will vote against it.

Having 16.7% of our population classed as smokers, more than 4% higher than the national average, is clearly a concern for the county council.

If, for instance, this ban had been announced in 2021, just under one in five of West Norfolk residents would have been affected. Implementing it will be no easy task.

There are a number of factors which contribute to this area having a considerable number of smokers. Deprivation levels in places such as North Lynn are perhaps the most poignant – if there are more people living in below-standard circumstances, they are more likely to smoke.

However, those working manual jobs in rural areas are also more likely to take up cigarettes – and we have plenty of those here.

In short, West Norfolk looks set to be one of the areas in this part of the country most affected by the Prime Minister’s smoking ban if it comes into effect.

How does the county council aim to reduce smoking?

- Norfolk County Council commissions Smoke Free Norfolk to provide support for smokers to quit smoking free of charge. This includes support around changing behaviour, access to Nicotine Replacement Therapy and e-cigarettes

- Ready to Change is a free online tool that anyone can use which provides information, interactive quizzes and tools to help residents to make behavioural changes, including giving up smoking.

- The council runs an annual Public Health campaign in October as part of the national “Stoptober” campaign, and in January a “New Year New You” healthy lifestyle campaign, which includes stop smoking.

- The Norfolk Tobacco Control and Vaping Alliance is a Norfolk-wide multi-agency partnership that works together under the Norfolk Tobacco Control Strategy as part of a plan for Norfolk to be ‘smoke-free’ (which will be achieved when adult smoking prevalence falls to 5% or less) by 2030.

The range of partners include Public Health, Trading Standards, NHS Trusts, ICB, Local Midwifery and Neonatal Service, Norfolk Fire and Rescue, Police, University of East Anglia, Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, Community Pharmacy Norfolk, Third Sector and VCSE organisations.

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