THE percentage of secondary school children in the Gwent area who smoke regularly has decreased slightly over the last five years, a study has found.

Currently, around four per cent of Year 7 to 11 pupils living in the area covered by Aneurin Bevan University Health Board smoke more than weekly, compared to five per cent in 2013/14.

Of the Gwent schoolchildren who have tried smoking, more than one-third (38 per cent) had tried their first cigarette at the age of 13 or younger, the study found.

Across Wales, the rate of young smokers has stayed at four per cent since 2013/14, prompting tobacco control campaign group ASH Wales Cymru to suggest current policies to prevent young people from accessing cigarettes were not working.

The study into schoolchildren's health and wellbeing was carried out by DECIPHer, Cardiff University's Centre for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement.

Suzanne Cash, CEO of ASH Wales Cymru, said: “Tobacco companies want nothing more than to trap these youngsters into a cycle of addiction that will see them become their customers for life. The only way to break that cycle is to identify those most at risk of smoking and arm them with the tools they need to resist temptation or to quit.”

The study also found that e-cigarettes were being smoked regularly by four per cent of Gwent schoolchildren surveyed.

But the percentage of young people in Gwent who have tried an e-cigarette has risen to 29 per cent, from 11 per cent in 2014.

Across Wales, the study found people from low-income backgrounds were twice as likely to smoke regularly as people from the wealthiest backgrounds (six per cent to three per cent).

Suzanne Cash, CEO of ASH Wales Cymru, said: "Among the adult population of Wales, it is those people from the deprived areas that are the most likely to smoke.

"It is essential that we take action to prevent young people from those areas from becoming the next generation of adult smokers in Wales, and from perpetuating the health inequalities that continue to blight our most deprived communities.”