This site is intended for health professionals only

Smoking surged among young adults during first lockdown

by Isabel Shaw
25 August 2021

Share this article

The number of young people who picked up smoking increased by 25% over the first national lockdown, new research has found.

This means that over 652,000 more young adults between the ages of 18 to 34 now smoke, compared to before the pandemic, which researchers believe is the result of higher stress levels.

The findings, published today (25 August) in the journal Addiction and funded by Cancer Research UK, also discovered that young people drank substantially more over the first lockdown, with the number of high-risk drinkers rising by 40%.

However, the rise was greater among women and people from less advantaged backgrounds, in which groups the number of high-risk drinkers increased by 55% and 64%, respectively.

People tried to quit

The researchers did find that the number of people who already smoked who tried to quit did increase over the pandemic and overall levels of smoking in adults remain stable.

The findings suggested the pandemic might have been a trigger for many people who currently smoke, including young adults, to consider quitting the habit.

Data, published by ASH last year, found that over one million people have given up smoking after the Government advised smokers to quit, following evidence that smokers who have Covid-19 are at a higher risk than non-smokers of severe illness and death.

Lead researcher Dr Sarah Jackson, from University College London, 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.

She added: ‘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.’

Cancer risk

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.’

She added: ‘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 helping those who do, to quit.’