Why is the number of smokers in Australia increasing?

Posted by DrMendelsohn on 18 August, 2017

This week, The Australian newspaper revealed that the number of smokers in Australia had INCREASED over the last 3 years while falling in other countries. Shocked tobacco control experts have suggested that the rise is simply due to migration or flawed calculations. How can this happen in a country which prides itself on its its outstanding tobacco control record?

The numbers

Smoking rates are calculated every 3 years in Australia by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and published in the National Drug Strategy Household Survey. The population data below is from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (Table references at end)

TABLE 1. Adult daily smokers in Australia, 2010-2016



Daily smoking rates 18+

Population 18+ (ref 4)

Number of daily  smokers 18+













317,030 less than 2010






21,102 more than 2013 daily smokers aged 18+


As the table shows, in the 3-year period from 2010-2013 the adult daily smoking rate fell dramatically from 15.9% to 13.3%. During this period, the adult population rose by 934,000, but the number of smokers FELL by 317,030.

In the last 3 years (2013-2016) there was a small drop in the adult daily smoking rate from 13.3% to 12.8% which was statistically insignificant. During this time, the adult population grew by 875,000 people and the number of smokers INCREASED by 21,102.

This is a dramatic and important reversal of a long-term trend.

Could this change be due to population growth or migration?

No. Population growth from 2010-2016 remained steady at about 1.5% per annum. Also the number of migrants coming to Australia was the same between 2010-2013 and 2013-2016, about 550,000 per year.

Annual population growth 1985-2015.jpg

Clearly the long-standing fall in smoking rates has stopped, in spite of the highest cigarette prices in the world and plain packaging. Australia's traditional tobacco control policies are having less effect and new and innovative ideas are needed.

Electronic cigarettes could help

Many factors affect smoking rates, but one missing strategy in Australia is e-cigarettes. Overseas, e-cigarettes have helped millions of smokers to quit and appear to be contributing to the rapid decline of smoking in many countries where they are widely available. While the Australian adult smoking rate has stagnated at 15.8% for the last 3 years (daily and non-daily smokers), the equivalent rate in England was 15.5% in 2016, in the US it was 15.1% in 2015.

 Smoking rates UK US Aust 2010-2016.png

Data from different studies can't be compared directly but the trend in the above graph is very clear. Australia is falling behind.

According to a recent England Department of Health report (page 15):

‘In 2016, it was estimated that 2 million consumers in England had used these products and completely stopped smoking and a further 470,000 were using them as an aid to stop smoking.

In the EU, a study found that 6.1 million smokers reported using e-cigarettes to stop smoking by 2014.

E-cigarettes are now the most popular quitting aid in the United Kingdom and the United States and many other countries.

E-cigarettes could save the lives of many thousands of Australian smokers who are unable to quit with conventional therapies. We now have enough evidence and their legalisation in Australia should be fast-tracked.


References in Table 1

1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2011), National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2010. Available at http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=32212254712&tab=3. Supplementary table: Proportion of adult daily smokers by jurisdiction, 1998 to 2010 (33KB XLS)

2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2014), National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2013, Table 2 -available at: http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=60129548784.

3. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2017), National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016, Table 2 -available at: http://www.aihw.gov.au/alcohol-and-other-drugs/data-sources/ndshs-2016/data/.

4. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2017), Australian Demographic Statistics, Dec 2016, Table 59 -available at: http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/3101.0Dec%202016?OpenDocument.


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