Objective Smoking usually develops in adolescence and is patterned by socioeconomic position (SEP). We examined whether early adolescent smoking development and associations with SEP have changed over time in a population with well-developed tobacco control policies. We additionally investigated the relative importance of socioeconomic inequalities at different stages of smoking development.
Methods An annual UK rotating panel survey including data from 5122 adolescents (51% male) aged 11–15 years between 1994 and 2008. Rates of smoking initiation, progression to occasional smoking (experimentation), progression to daily smoking (escalation), and quitting were examined using discrete-time event history analysis.
Results Initiation, experimentation and escalation rates declined over the study period while quitting rates increased. Decreases in initiation were concentrated among older adolescents and decreases in escalation among those who spent a year or two as occasional smokers. Socioeconomic disadvantage was associated with higher rates of initiation and escalation, with similar findings across SEP measures. Inequalities in initiation were stronger at younger ages. There was less evidence of associations between SEP and quitting or experimentation. Inequalities in escalation remained constant over time, while inequalities in initiation widened before narrowing. Further modelling suggested that differential initiation rates contributed more to inequalities in daily smoking at age 15 than did differential escalation.
Conclusions Increasing tobacco control in the UK is associated with reduced uptake and more quitting in early adolescence, but socioeconomic inequalities remain. Interventions should focus on reducing inequalities in initiation among early adolescents.