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Health policies fail to deter young smokers: Campaigners condemn decision not to ban cigarette advertising

GOVERNMENT policies to reduce smoking in children have failed, the latest official statistics reveal. The number of children smoking remains steady with 10 per cent of 11- to 15-year-olds being regular cigarette smokers.

This failure is clearly embarrassing to the Department of Health and also means it has no chance of achieving the Health of the Nation target to reduce smoking in 11- to 15-year-olds by 33 per cent (to less than 6 per cent) by the end of this year.

In 1982, the proportion of children who were regular smokers was 11 per cent. It was 13 per cent in 1984; 10 per cent in 1986; 8 per cent in 1988 and then 10 per cent in 1990, 1992 and last year.

The report, Smoking Among Secondary School Children, from the Office on Population Censuses and Surveys on behalf of the department, shows that despite publicity and stricter laws, most children still buy their cigarettes from shops illegally. This too has changed little since 1982. In 1993, 88 per cent of regular child smokers usually bought their cigarettes from shops, just as they did 11 years ago.

John Bowis, parliamentary secretary at the Department of Health, admitted yesterday that the new statistics were 'disappointing'. He said: 'In spite of the efforts being made by the Government and other organisations, we are not making the progress we would like.'

He said a pounds 12m campaign, announced 18 months ago, would be launched before the end of this year. In May, the Government completed its latest voluntary agreement with the tobacco industry. Measures included reductions in shop advertising. But the Government is still refusing to ban tobacco advertising and promotion.

The report says: 'The prevalence of cigarette smoking among secondary school children has changed little since 1982. Very few children are smokers when they start secondary school, but by the time they are 15 years old, more than one-fifth smoke regularly.'

The report defines regular smoking as at least one cigarette a week. It says: 'In 1993, the average number of cigarettes recorded in the previous week by regular smokers was 47. Almost a quarter of regular smokers had smoked an average of 10 or more cigarettes a day in the previous week.'

Health experts and anti-smoking campaigners condemned the Government's failure to stop children smoking. Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of the BMA, said: 'How many more damning statistics do the Government need to prove that their obstinate refusal to ban tobacco advertising is giving a clear signal to young people that smoking is acceptable?'

Steve Woodward, director of the pressure group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), said the report made nonsense of government statements that it had been doing the right things. 'They cannot continue to ignore the advice of all the eminent medical experts that advertising must be banned.'

John Moxham, professor of respiratory medicine at Kings College Hospital and chairman of Doctors for Tobacco Law, said it was essential to break the 'tobacco culture' and that children had to be discouraged from starting.

Smoking Among Secondary School Children in England in 1993; Office of Population Censuses and Surveys; pounds 7.85.