New evidence linking availability of tobacco & smoking

The connection between the local availability of tobacco products and smoking behaviour has been underlined in new research from the CRESH team this week. Published in the journal Tobacco Control, we show how moving into an area of Scotland where tobacco products are more readily available can significantly increase the risk of smoking while pregnant. We estimate that a pregnant woman living in an area with the highest tobacco availability is 70% more likely to smoke than when she was living in an area with the lowest availability of tobacco products.

Why is this important? Firstly, smoking during pregnancy is a vital Public Health issue and is recognised as a key priority area for UK health policy. It is harmful for both the mother and the developing fetus and the effects for social and health outcomes can persist into childhood and adulthood. Since smoking is so strongly associated with poverty and deprivation, it also has an important role to play in the persistence of health inequalities across generations.

But there are other reasons why the research is important. Much of what we know, including previous research from CRESH, is based on information from a single point in time. While these studies are crucial in establishing the strength of associations, they are less useful for determining mechanisms. A key question that remains is whether high availability is the cause of smoking behaviour or whether retailers preferentially locate in areas of high demand. Both pathways are plausible but both carry very different conclusions and policy recommendations. Our latest research is able to address this question using information on smoking during pregnancy which is collected routinely as part of Scotland’s hospital maternity records. By looking at multiple pregnancies to the same individual, we were able to relate changes in smoking behaviour between pregnancies to changes in exposure to tobacco retailers from residential moves. This approach provides strong evidence that availability is causally linked to behaviour.

The policy implications are clear. As more and more countries move towards a “Tobacco Endgame” policy this, and other research, highlights how a focus on tackling the local availability of tobacco products will be crucial. In a week where the UK government has suggested that preventing poor health lies with “people choosing to look after themselves better, staying active and stopping smoking” our findings are a timely reminder of the importance of considering the wider set of structural factors that shape our health of which our residential environment is one important component.

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