Children’s health and welfare up in smoke

27 October 2015

David Robertson is Partnerships Development Lead at ASH Scotland. In his blog for us, he discusses the economic effects that smoking has on children.

Everyone should know of the dangers of smoking to our health. Every 10 minutes someone in Scotland is hospitalised with a smoking related illness, with 6 tobacco-related deaths every day.

But we don’t hear enough about the economic impact that tobacco has on our most vulnerable communities, and particularly on children.

Around one in five children under 16 live in households where someone smokes. Yet the proportion will be higher for children living in poverty because, unemployed people are around twice as likely to smoke as people in employment while workers in manual and routine jobs are twice as likely to smoke as those in managerial and professional roles.

Every penny spent on tobacco is no longer available for improving a child’s quality of life, including quality food, family holidays, sport, education and recreational activities. The impact is greatest for those already on low income – a low-income family earning £18,400 a year, where both parents smoke 20 cigarettes a day, will spend a quarter of their entire income on tobacco or around £4,600 a year.

Furthermore, smokers take more time off work due to illness so for those on hourly rates or zero hours contracts this is an added drain on resources. Children exposed to second-hand smoke are more likely to become ill and hence to miss important school days, risking educational attainment. Children growing up in smoking households are much more likely to take up smoking themselves, so that the cycle of disadvantage continues.

Reducing the smoking rate by just 1% (from 34% to 33%) amongst the most deprived fifth of the population would make more than £10 million a year available to the poorest communities. So those who wish to help our most disadvantaged citizens are missing a key opportunity if they fail to engage with an addiction which kills half of its long-term users, reduces their ability to support themselves, is implicated in causing depression and psychotic illness and is a driver of inequality.

Some will say that reducing the tax on tobacco would be another way to reduce the costs to poorer communities. But we know that tobacco consumption is strongly affected by price so reducing the cost of tobacco would be at the expense of increasing consumption, and with it the associated harm. These arguments have been considered in greater detail in discussions on the impact of cheap alcohol on communities and we see few anti-poverty voices calling for alcohol to be more easily available.

To support effective action on the impact of tobacco on children, ASH Scotland has developed a Charter for a Tobacco-free Generation. The Charter sets out six key principles, starting with “children should be born free from the harmful effects of tobacco”, which encourage and enable organisations to examine how their work links in to the tobacco-free goal.

By signing the Charter organisations commit to reviewing their own policy and practice to identify what they can do to reduce the harm tobacco causes to young people. For example financial support services, from Citizens Advice and money advice services to foodbanks and credit unions, could commit to highlighting stop smoking support whenever clients identify tobacco use as a significant household cost.

Surveys consistently show that most smokers want to quit. In responding to the harm caused by tobacco we must be clear that this problem is rooted in unwilling addiction rather than willing consumer choices. This should help staff to address any concerns over stigmatising clients or any suggestion that people are being blamed for living in poverty.

With consistent evidence of the physical harm and economic costs associated with tobacco use, it is not good enough to indulge smoking behaviours as a consumer choice or a recreation. Any organisation supporting vulnerable families will be engaging a population disproportionately affected by smoking. It is time to prioritise helping those people to become tobacco-free – and supporting the Charter for a Tobacco-free Generation would be the ideal next step.

This blog forms part of a series on child poverty in Scotland. Get in touch if you or your organisation would like to contribute.