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Teenage smokers fail to recognise health risks

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.312.7045.1501 (Published 15 June 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:1501

Britain's teenage smokers have little idea of the risks associated with smoking, according to a MORI survey published this week. The survey, commissioned jointly by several antismoking groups, found that about two thirds of smokers of school age thought that the health risks from smoking were not very important. Conversely, only about a quarter of the non-smokers held this belief.

More than 4500 children were interviewed for the study, which asked them to choose from a list of factors those which were the most important in helping people to live a long and healthy life. While non-smokers saw avoiding smoking as the top health priority, smokers ranked it well behind having a job and taking exercise and thought that it was no more important than avoiding pesticides in food or traffic fumes. The differences in beliefs between smokers and non-smokers were far greater than those between girls and boys, teenagers in the north and those in the south, older and younger children, and pupils from different types of school.

The survey was commissioned jointly by ASH, the Cancer Research Campaign, the BMA, the Royal College of Nursing, and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. Professor Richard Peto, head of the fund's Cancer Studies Unit at Oxford, said: “Teenage smokers have crazy ideas about risks. The truth is that, unless they quit smoking, about half of them are going to kill themselves.”

Professor Peto said that it was difficult to tell whether unrealistic perceptions determine who takes up smoking or whether those who take up smoking go on to downplay the risks: “On current UK smoking patterns about two million of today's youngsters are going to be killed by tobacco, with a million killed in middle age alone.”

A third of the teenage smokers surveyed agreed with the statement: “Smoking can't be all that dangerous or the government would ban sports sponsorship by tobacco companies.” Professor Peto said that more than half of the money spent on tobacco promotion goes on indirect advertising such as sport.—SANDRA GOLDBECK-WOOD, BMJ

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