For the first time in 25 years, rates of smoking among teenage boys in Ireland are increasing, according to a study published in ERJ Open Research.
Anecdotal evidence from supermarkets and shops in Co Wexford suggests young people are smoking as much – if not more – than they have in years, backing up the research.
This despite the prohibitively high cost of a packet of cigarettes which now stands at around €14, after a 50c price hike in the Budget.
Consultant Respiratory Physician at Wexford General Hospital Colm Quigley said young people think they are immortal, but the tragedy of smoking is that the ill effects it causes often only appear after decades.
“There have been issues around young women in the US smoking which had crossed into breast cancer. The problem with cigarette smoking in young people, especially for those who are asthmatic, is it tends to be 20, 30 years – so slow before the effects are seen.”
He said COPD is now the fourth most common cause of death globally.
“This is because of smoking. People come in when they are in their fifties and sixties with shortness of breath. Younger people, like all young people throughout history, believe they are immortal.”
Shocking images of the damage smoking does to the body tattooed on pack cases did make an impact but it has not prevented an upward trend in teenagers smoking, he said.
As for how to best educate young people about the health implications of smoking, Dr Quigley said it requires a fluid, multi-faceted response.
“If you keep hammering the same thing home all the time it loses its impact. The 50c rise in price is good as one of the things that is proven to reduce smoking is cost but there is no doubt that a constant focus on blocking advertising of smoking is greatly beneficial and to ensure role models aren’t seen smoking.”
In these troubling Covid times, people seem happy to continue smoking even though it increases their risk or hospitalisation or death if they catch the coronavirus.
“I spoke with someone who had Covid and wouldn’t take a vaccine because he said he didn’t know what he was putting in his body. This while he was smoking 20 a day. Public education on this topic has to be done very carefully.”
Bad habits are often formed at home and according to Dr Quigley: “If a caregiver smokes it’s a big problem. I always say, it’s fine if people smoke at home, so long as it’s outdoors and they’re getting wet.”
He said public health’s focus has not been on smoking prevention lately due to the pandemic, adding that there will be a renewed drive to reduce smoking among young people once the virus becomes less of an all consuming issue.
The real educational impact is around long term impact.
“It’s probably prudent not to focus on that at the moment as it could diffuse the message too much. Some of the ads on RTE of people dying from lung cancer did have an impact but that impact only has a short shelf-life. Then people switch off. You then have to refocus in a slightly different way. The Irish Cancer Society and other bodies have all been focussing on how to get the message across in a supportive way to try and encourage people to take the vaccine for health protection and to reduce harm by stopping.
“With Covid, in particular, it’s important there isn’t a blame game. We now need to get back to minding ourselves, to wearing masks. The emphasis has to be on the vast majority of people who are doing everything to protect themselves and other members of society and not focus on the anti-vaxxers.
“We are quite happy to say you don’t have to take the vaccine but you do have to wear a seatbelt because it’s against the law. It’s not just protecting yourself. If you are in the back of a car you can become a deadly missile. People are peddling fear and misinformation and even more misinformation.”
The smoking study highlighted that rates of vaping among teenagers have risen in the last four years and that teenagers who use e-cigarettes are more likely to smoke.
The researchers say their findings indicate that Ireland will not meet its targets to reduce smoking rates and they add to evidence that vaping could be promoting a new generation of young people addicted to nicotine.
The study was led by Professor Luke Clancy, Director General of the Tobacco Free Research Institute Ireland, based in Dublin. He said: “Smoking rates among teenagers have been falling in Ireland, as with many other countries in Europe and in the USA. On the other hand, use of e-cigarettes is increasing around the world.
“The dangers of smoking are well-known. We are still learning about the effects of e-cigarettes, but we know that the nicotine they contain can cause brain damage in teenagers. There’s also a concern that they could lead to an increase in smoking.”
The researchers examined data on Irish teenagers from the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), a survey of around 100,000 15- to 16-year-olds, conducted every four years in 35 European countries. There were 1,493 Irish teenagers involved in the 2015 survey and 1,949 teenagers in 2019 survey.
Results from the 2019 survey showed that 16.2pc of boys were smokers, compared to 13.1pc in 2015, while in 2019 12.8pc of girls were smokers compared to 12.8pc in 2015.
E-cigarette use has increased by around 10 per cent in Ireland, with teenagers 50 per cent more likely to start smoking nicotine cigarettes also a major concern.