Nearly 2,000 Sheffield schoolchildren aged as young as 11 are risking serious illness by taking up smoking each year.
As pupils across the city prepare for the new academic year, shocking statistics have revealed five youngsters aged 11 to 15 get hooked on cigarettes every day – 160 a month.
Public health chiefs in Sheffield are now launching a crackdown on tobacco, targeting young people.
They say they are working hard to educate children about life-threatening health problems such as cancer and heart disease linked with smoking.
The statistics, from Government research, have been published by Cancer Research UK as part of a campaign calling for continued action to discourage young people from smoking.
The charity also wants ministers to commit to selling cigarettes in plain packaging.
Sheffield has the highest rate of new young smokers in South Yorkshire at 1,917 a year according to the figures, collected via schools in 2010 and 2011.
In Barnsley, 951 schoolchildren take up smoking every year, compared to 952 in Rotherham and 1,297 in Doncaster.
James Firth, aged 42, from Stannington in Sheffield, started smoking in his teens and struggled to kick the habit for more than 20 years.
He said the statistics were ‘shocking’.
James, who works in the payroll department at Royal Mail, said: “It seems a bit cool and rebellious, I think that’s why I started.
“I don’t live far from a secondary school. Many times I see kids hanging around in groups smoking.
“When people say you’ll get cancer and your teeth will go brown, you think it only happens to old people, but down the line you learn the hard way. “Schools should take more responsibility and make sure children can’t smoke in big congregations at the gates.
“If you’re going to smoke, you’re going to smoke, it doesn’t matter what the packet looks like.”
Coun Mary Lea, Sheffield Council cabinet member for health, said: “It is incredibly important we tackle smoking in the city – both in terms of saving lives and also to alleviate the strain on public services.
“We know the younger the age children start smoking, the greater the harm is likely to be, because early uptake is associated with subsequent heavier smoking, higher levels of dependency, a lower chance of quitting, and higher mortality.
“We support the campaign on plain packaging.”
A tobacco control programme is being commissioned by the council next year, aiming to reduce access to cheap and illicit cigarettes and offer more protection from the effects of second-hand smoke.
Claire Holden, NHS Sheffield Stop Smoking Service manager, said: “Whether you’re 12 years old or 75 years old, we give the service to the person that’s sitting in front of us. At the heart of what we do is assessing people’s motivation, and how ready they are to quit.
“It’s no different when we talk to a young person. We have a good success rate across all ages.”
She said medication and nicotine replacement therapy such as patches and gum were available for young people, as well as treatments to ‘break the psychological habit’ around smoking, including peer pressure from friends.
Nicki Embleton, of Cancer Research UK in Yorkshire, said: “The excitement of starting a new term is in stark contrast to the reality of the number of children who will start smoking every day.
“With many 11-year-olds starting secondary school for the first time next week, it’s imperative that we try to help our local youngsters.”