Children in deprived areas are exposed to significantly more tobacco sales than those from wealthier neighbourhoods. 

This was the finding of new collaborative research between the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, which was published in the journal Tobacco Control.

The researchers used GPS-trackers to follow a group of almost 700 10-and-11-year-olds from across Scotland. 

They found that children from the most deprived neighbourhoods encounter a shop selling tobacco 149 times a week, compared to just 23 times a week for the least deprived.

The researchers mapped the location of all shops selling tobacco products across Scotland and followed the movement of the participants for eight consecutive days. The study identified how often, and for how long, the children went within 10m of a shop selling tobacco. 

The children were part of the Growing Up in Scotland study and both they, and their parents, agreed to them wearing the trackers.

The results between deprived and non-deprived areas were far more polarised than expected, researchers behind the study said.

While previous research has shown that tobacco outlets are twice as common in deprived areas. This study was able to show that children from the most deprived areas were exposed to tobacco retailing six times more frequently than children from the least deprived areas.

Most exposure came from convenience stores and newsagents selling tobacco, with peaks just before and after school. There was also a higher than expected amount of exposure from supermarkets on weekends.

Children from more deprived areas are already more likely to start smoking themselves, and pre-adolescence is a critical period where the path to starting smoking begins.

University of Glasgow's Dr Fiona Caryl, lead author of the research, said the findings provided a "significant contribution" to policy debate on tobacco availability.

She added: "Identifying ways to reverse the normalising effects of ubiquitous tobacco retailing is key to policies aimed at preventing people from starting smoking."

Professor Jamie Pearce, a co-author of the report and an expert in in tobacco-related health from University of Edinburgh said “This exciting and novel work suggests any moves to reduce tobacco availability, whether to reduce the number of retail outlets, or restrict the timing of sales, will have a greater benefit for more deprived groups who suffer the greatest amount of tobacco-related harm.”

Dr Garth Reid, Interim Head of Evidence for Action at NHS Health Scotland, said: “As a national health board working to reduce health inequalities and improve health, we were pleased to support this innovative research into children and young people’s exposure to tobacco products in Scotland. We welcome the findings, which will inform a report that we will publish later this year, considering the implications for health inequalities and tobacco control in Scotland in greater detail.” 

The study, ‘Socioeconomic inequalities in children’s exposure to tobacco retailing based on individual-level GPS data in Scotland’ is published in Tobacco Control. The work was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office (CSO) and NHS Health Scotland.