Children in deprived areas encounter shops selling tobacco six times more frequently than those in well-off areas.

Issued: Tue, 23 Jul 2019 11:22:00 BST

Published 23rd July 2019

Dr Fiona Caryl is a Research Assistant in the Neighbourhoods and Communities programme.

Our new study looking at exposure of children to tobacco retailing, recently published in the journal Tobacco Control, shows that an average 10—11-year-old child in Scotland comes within 10m of a shop selling tobacco 43 times a week. This rises to 149 times a week for children living in the poorest areas—six times more than the 23 encounters experienced per week by children in affluent areas.

Our findings demonstrate an unexpectedly large inequality in the amount of times children are exposed to tobacco sales. Unexpected, because in the same study we showed that tobacco outlets are 2.6 times more common around the homes of children living in the most versus the least deprived areas. Yet we found a six-fold difference in exposure because we used GPS trackers (fully consented and ethics-approved, of course) to follow exactly where children moved through their environments.

We found that most exposure came from convenience stores (41%) and newsagents (15%) on school days, with peaks before and after school hours. At weekends, we found most exposure came from supermarkets (14%), with a peak around midday.

Why does this matter?

This may not sound like a lot of exposure, and we might ask if a child is really exposed to tobacco just by being in or near a shop selling tobacco, especially after the ban on point-of-sale (POS) tobacco displays. But then, we don’t actually know how many micro-exposures it takes to make a child think that smoking is a normal, acceptable and widespread behaviour rather than a major cause of premature death.

Research into advertising suggests that mere exposure to indirect and incidental stimuli can influence attitudes non-consciously if they’re repeatedly presented. Yes, the ban on POS tobacco displays has reduced children’s susceptibility to smoking, but children still notice tobacco on sale. In fact, recent research shows that despite the POS ban the conspicuousness and prominence of tobacco in shops varies considerably between areas of high and low deprivation. And these differences have been increasing since the POS ban.

The potential for greater daily exposure to tobacco retailing to increase normalisation of smoking is most concerning when you consider that children in poor areas are already more vulnerable to becoming smokers themselves. Smoking rates are much higher in deprived areas, as are rates of smoking-related deaths. Most adult smokers start when they are teenagers, and teenagers are more likely to smoke if they live in areas with high tobacco availability.

Pre-adolescence is a critical period when many beliefs and attitudes become hard-wired. The experiences children have at this stage may have long-lasting effects. Children deserve the same opportunities to develop healthy behaviours, regardless of their socioeconomic background. Our findings raise some important questions about where and when tobacco products are being sold and the messages this is sending.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author