Removing displays of tobacco products from shops may have reduced the proportion of children buying cigarettes by 17%, according to new research.
Imperial College London, which carried out the study, said the findings suggest tobacco display bans may have an important role in reducing the number of child smokers.
But it also revealed more worrying findings, suggesting that more than two in three child smokers had not been refused cigarettes when they last attempted to buy them – a figure that remained unchanged between 2010 and 2016.
Furthermore, the majority of child smokers said it was easy to buy cigarettes in shops. This rose slightly from 61% in 2010 to 65% in 2016.
The research, the first analysis of the impact of the 2015 tobacco display ban in England, assessed survey responses from 18,000 11-15 year olds from across England between 2010 and 2016.
In 2015, the display of cigarettes was banned in all shops in the UK. Before this, 57% of children who smoked regularly bought their cigarettes in shops.
The latest study, published in the journal Tobacco Control, revealed this fell to 40% by 2016.
NHS data suggests just over one in 20 children smoked in England in 2016, a decline from just under one in 10 in 2010.
There are currently nine million adult smokers in the UK and many of these would have started in childhood, lead author Dr Anthony Laverty, from Imperial’s School of Public Health, said.
He added: “We know that smoking kills one in every two smokers, and that children who smoke are likely to continue smoking throughout their lifetime, seriously increasing their risk of disease.
“We also know seeing cigarettes displayed in shops is linked to smoking, especially among children.
“This research shows that removing displays made tobacco less visible to children, and that fewer of them bought cigarettes there.
“Most countries worldwide still allow cigarettes to be advertised and displayed in shops.
“This research provides evidence that the introduction of display bans will be an effective measure against children smoking – and could help save them from starting a deadly habit.”
The findings also showed that among the children who smoked, the most common source of cigarettes was from friends, followed by shops. This remain unchanged between 2010 and 2016.
The team acknowledged that other measures were put in place between 2010 and 2016 that may have helped reduce smoking rates, such as the ban on cigarette vending machines and higher taxes.
Dr Laverty went on: “During this time adult smoking rates have fallen and higher taxes have increased the price of tobacco.
“All these factors have a role to play, and these findings suggest removing cigarette displays are an important component. Smoking rates fall fastest when complimentary measures are put in place.”
Senior author Dr Nicholas Hopkinson, from Imperial’s National Heart and Lung Institute, said: “These results are encouraging but more work is needed to ensure effective tobacco control.
“Our findings suggest it is still too easy for children to purchase cigarettes in shops.
“Enforcement is important, but Government cuts have meant that councils have seen a 56% reduction in trading standards officers between 2009 and 2016.
“A licensing system for tobacco retailers needs to be introduced – similar to that seen for alcohol – which could be paid for through a levy on tobacco industry sales.”