Cigarette smoking among 15 year olds


Last updated 14 May 2019 - see all updates

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1. Main facts and figures

  • 8.2% of 15 year olds responding to the 2014/15 survey were smokers

  • smoking was least common amongst 15 year olds in the Black, Asian and Other ethnic groups

  • smoking was most common amongst 15 year olds in the White and Mixed ethnic groups

  • White 15 year olds were nearly 4 times more likely to be smokers than Black 15 year olds

Things you need to know

This information is collected through the What About YOUth (WAY) survey. The survey is based on a random sample of pupils drawn from the National Pupil Database (NPD); postal surveys are then sent to pupils’ homes. The information it collects is used to make generalisations about the total population.

Keep in mind when making comparisons between ethnic groups that all survey estimates are subject to a degree of uncertainty. This is because they are based on a sample of the population. The degree of uncertainty is greater when the number of respondents is small, so it will be highest for ethnic minority groups.

The differences in the percentage of 15 year olds smoking that were observed between ethnic groups and reported on here were larger than any uncertainty around the estimates (they were statistically significant).

The survey excludes pupils in independent schools, since these schools are not covered by the NPD. No other suitable database was available for sampling pupils, and it was concluded that survey estimates would not be significantly different as a result of these schools not being included.

Evidence suggests young people are less willing to admit to smoking when answering survey questions such as this at home, particularly in comparison with school-based surveys. Data on smoking prevalence is also collected by the annual Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use (SDD) Among Young People Survey, which is a schools-based survey of 11 to 15 year olds. It is not unusual for different survey methods to give different results and these estimates were not intended to be, and should not be, compared to other sources of smoking data without an understanding of the impact of different methodologies.

What the data measures

This data measures the percentage of 15 year olds who were current smokers in 2014/15, based on responses to the What About YOUth (WAY) survey.

The percentage is calculated as the number of respondents who were current smokers, out of the total number who gave a valid response on their smoking status.

Respondents were asked to tick which statement best describes their smoking status. Current smokers were those who agreed:

  • "I sometimes smoke cigarettes now but I don't smoke as many as one a week"
  • "I usually smoke between one and 6 cigarettes per week"
  • "I usually smoke more than 6 cigarettes per week"

Those respondents who had never smoked, had only ever tried smoking once or twice, or used to smoke but do not smoke now, were not counted as current smokers.

The WAY survey collected data from 15 year olds across England. Respondents completed a paper questionnaire delivered to their home, and returned it by post – or had the option to complete it online.

The ethnic categories used in this data

Respondents were asked to select their ethnicity from standardised ethnic groups based on the 2011 census.

For this data, the number of people from specific ethnic categories surveyed (the ‘sample size’) was too small to draw any firm conclusions. Therefore, the data is broken down into the following 5 broad groups:

  • White
  • Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups
  • Asian/Asian British
  • Black/African/Caribbean/Black British
  • Other ethnic group

2. By ethnicity

Percentage of 15 year olds who are current smokers by ethnicity
Ethnicity %
All 8.2
Asian 2.6
Black 2.4
Mixed 9.0
White 9.2
Other 2.9

Download table data for ‘By ethnicity’ (CSV) Source data for ‘By ethnicity’ (CSV)

Summary of Cigarette smoking among 15 year olds By ethnicity Summary

  • 8.2% of 15 year olds responding to the 2014/15 survey were smokers

  • smoking was least common among 15 year olds in the Black, Asian and Other ethnic groups, at 2.4%, 2.6% and 2.9% respectively

  • smoking was most common among 15 year olds in the White and Mixed ethnic groups, at 9.2% and 9.0% respectively

3. Methodology

A sample of approximately 300,000 young people were selected from the National Pupil Database (NPD) and contacted to take part in the postal survey, with the option to complete it online. Fieldwork ran between 22 September 2014 and 9 January 2015. A total of 120,115 out of 295,024 participants responded to the survey. In a minority of cases (1% of pupils selected for the 2014 survey), parents opted to take their children out of the survey. A £5 shopping voucher was used as a token of appreciation, which was conditional on completing the questionnaire. The response rate was 41%, when taking into account any undeliverable mail outs and opt-outs from the sampled pupils.

By using the NPD as a sampling frame, it was possible to stratify the sample to help ensure the sample was representative across a range of pupil and area characteristics. Data was weighted by gender, ethnicity, Free School Meal eligibility, quintile of the Index of Multiple Deprivation, and local authority to reflect the known population profile of 15 year olds in England (sourced from the NPD).

Both the numerator and the denominator were weighted to make them applicable to the population as a whole. Further details on the sampling methodology and weighting procedure can be found in the WAY survey technical report (PDF opens in a new window or tab)

Confidence intervals

Confidence intervals for each ethnic group are available in Download the data.

Based on survey responses, it’s estimated that 8.2% of all 15 year olds in England in 2014/15 were smokers. Because the WAY survey questioned a sample of 15-year-old smokers rather than all 15-year-old smokers, however, it’s impossible to be 100% certain of the exact percentage.

It’s 95% certain, however, that between 8.1% and 8.3% of all 15 year olds were smokers. In statistical terms, this is a 95% confidence interval, with a lower and upper confidence interval of 8.1% and 8.3%, respectively. This means that if 100 random samples were taken, then 95 times out of 100 the estimate would fall between 8.1% and 8.3%. But 5 times out of 100 it would fall outside this range.

The smaller the survey sample, the more uncertain the estimate and the wider the confidence interval. For example, fewer children from the Mixed ethnic group responded to the survey than White children, so we can be less certain about the estimate for the smaller group. This greater uncertainty is expressed by a wider confidence interval of between 8.2% and 9.8% for Mixed ethnic children.

Further technical information

Health and Wellbeing of 15 year olds – What About YOUth? Survey 2014: Technical Report (PDF opens in a new window or tab)

4. Data sources


Type of data

Survey data

Type of statistic

Official statistics


NHS Digital

Publication frequency


Purpose of data source

What About YOUth? 2014 (WAY 2014) is a newly-established survey designed to collect robust data on a range of health behaviours amongst 15 year-olds. This data is collected to understand smoking patterns in children and address the issues of reducing the uptake of smoking among children.

The Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) was commissioned by the Department of Health to run the survey in direct response to the Children and Young People’s Health Outcomes Forum. This Forum identified gaps in the Public Health Outcomes Framework (PHOF) and other key health behaviour measures relating to young people. HSCIC contracted Ipsos MORI to carry out the survey.

WAY 2014 is the first survey to be conducted of its kind and it is hoped that the survey will be repeated in order to form a time series of comparable data on a range of indicators for 15 year-olds across England. Data has been collected on general health, diet, use of free time, physical activity, smoking, drinking, emotional wellbeing, drugs and bullying.

5. Download the data

Cigarette smoking among 15 year olds - Spreadsheet (csv) 1 KB

This file contains the following: ethnicity, year, geography, value, confidence intervals, unweighted sample size