In England, around 20% of the population are smokers and 13% drink excessively. These behaviours are leading risk factors for several non-communicable diseases, including cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. It is estimated that around 8000 deaths/year are alcohol-related and 80 000 deaths of adults aged 35 and over are attributed to smoking annually. The prevalence and adverse effects of high-risk drinking and tobacco use are not equally distributed across the country, with large regional variations.
A North–South divide exists for smoking, with higher rates of tobacco use, smoking-related deaths and smoking-related harm in northern regions.
In contrast, excessive alcohol consumption tends to be lowest in central and eastern regions, while an East versus West divide is seen in the prevalence of alcohol dependency and alcohol sales. These regional variations in consumption do not always map onto experienced harm, a phenomenon known as the Alcohol Harm Paradox. In 2014, alcohol-related death rates were significantly higher among regions in the north of England compared with those in the south.
Objectives: This paper compares patterns of smoking and high-risk alcohol use across regions in England, and assesses the impact on these of adjusting for sociodemographic characteristics.
Design: Population survey of 53 922 adults in England aged 16+ taking part in the Alcohol and Smoking Toolkit Studies.
Measures: Participants answered questions regarding their socioeconomic status (SES), gender, age, ethnicity, Government Office Region, smoking status and completed the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT). High-risk drinkers were defined as those with a score of 8 or more (7 or more for women) on the AUDIT.
Results: In unadjusted analyses, relative to the South West, those in the North of England were more likely to smoke, while those from the East of England, South East and London were less likely. After adjustment for sociodemographics, smoking prevalence was no higher in North East (RR 0.97, p>0.05), North West (RR 0.98, p>0.05) or Yorkshire and the Humber (RR 1.03, p>0.05) but was less common in the East and West Midlands (RR 0.86, p<0.001; RR 0.91, p<0.05), East of England (RR 0.86, p<0.001), South East (RR 0.92, p<0.05) and London (RR 0.85, p<0.001). High-risk drinking was more common in the North but was less common in the Midlands, London and East of England. Adjustment for sociodemographics had little effect. There was a higher prevalence in the North East (RR 1.67, p<0.001), North West (RR 1.42, p<0.001) and Yorkshire and the Humber (RR 1.35, p<0.001); lower prevalence in the East Midlands (RR 0.69, p<0.001), West Midlands (RR 0.77, p<0.001), East of England (RR 0.72, p<0.001) and London (RR 0.71, p<0.001); and a similar prevalence in the South East (RR 1.10, p>0.05)
Figure 2: Association between Government Office Region and high-risk drinking: (A) unadjusted;
(B) adjusted for gender, age, ethnicity and socioeconomic status (reference region: South West). Note: this shows the relative risk difference for each region relative to the South West (dotted reference region). Increasing red tones reflect increasingly higher significant risk and increasing blue tones reflect increasingly lower significant risk. Regions shaded white have a similar risk to the South West. Online supplementary figure S9 labels the Government Office Regions in England.
Expand Image – More diagrams in the main report
Conclusions: In adjusted analyses, smoking and high-risk drinking appear less common in ‘central England’ than in the rest of the country. Regional differences in smoking, but not those in high-risk drinking, appear to be explained to some extent by sociodemographic disparities.
Strengths and limitations of this study
Used a representative survey about smoking and drinking conducted on a large sample of the adult population in England.
Based on the most up-to-date information in England on regional differences in smoking and high-risk drinking accounting for disparities in gender, socioeconomic status (SES), ethnicity and age.
Respondents may have underestimated or failed to report their drinking and smoking.
Patterns of smoking and alcohol use were only available at the Government Office Region level, whereas important variation may occur at a more micro-geographical level.
Published by the BMJ Publishing Group Limited.