The number of 18-34 year-olds who smoke increased by 25 per cent in England during the first lockdown, according to a study published today in the journal Addiction and funded by Cancer Research UK.
This means that over 652,000 more young adults smoke, compared to before the pandemic.
The researchers from UCL and the University of Sheffield also found that over 4.5 million more adults would be classed as high-risk drinkers during the same period, as the number rose by 40 per cent. But, this trend was particularly worrying in women (up 55 per cent) as well as people from lower socioeconomic groups (up 64 per cent).
Though existing heavy drinkers did make attempts to cut down, this was only observed in adults from higher socioeconomic groups, suggesting that if trends continue, health inequalities linked to alcohol could worsen.
There were increases in the number of existing smokers quitting successfully, and overall levels of smoking in adults remains stable. But, in the lead up to the government publishing its tobacco control plan to help deliver its goal for England to become smoke-free by 2030, the increased number of young adults who smoke cannot be ignored. As it stands, meeting this would require smokers to quit at a rate of around 40 per cent faster than predicted.
Whilst the study doesn’t explain why these changes occurred, the researchers noted that people from lower income backgrounds, younger adults, and women are among those who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Given that many people mistakenly believe that smoking and drinking help relieve stress, they suggest it’s possible that some may have taken up these up for the first time or relapsed to help them ‘cope’.
Smoking is the biggest preventable cause of cancer – it’s known to cause at least 15 different cancer types. Meanwhile, drinking even small amounts of alcohol increases the risk of seven different types of cancer.
Sarah Jackson, lead author and principal research fellow at UCL, said, “The first lockdown was unprecedented in the way it changed people’s day-to-day lives. We found that many smokers took this opportunity to stop smoking, which is fantastic. However, the first lockdown was also a period of great stress for many people, and we saw rates of smoking and risky drinking increase among groups hardest hit by the pandemic.
“It will be important to keep a close eye on how these increases in smoking and drinking develop over time to ensure appropriate support is made accessible for anyone who needs it.”
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said, “There’s no ‘safe’ level of smoking or drinking, and stopping smoking or cutting down drinking will help to reduce your risk of cancer.
“Public health campaigns and prevention services have a vital role to play in helping people to quit and also maintaining the motivation of those who have already made positive changes. The upcoming tobacco control plan for England is a key opportunity for the government to reduce smoking rates, but this can only be achieved with sufficient investment. A Smokefree Fund – using tobacco industry funds, but without industry interference – could pay for the comprehensive measures needed to prevent people from starting to smoke and help those who do, to quit.”