25 August 2021

Surge in smoking among young adults during lockdown 

The number of 18-34 year-olds who smoke increased by 25 per cent in England during the first lockdown, according to a new study conducted by the University of Sheffield and UCL

A cigarette burns smoke
  • A new study has found there has been a surge in smoking among young adults during lockdown
  • The number of 18-34 year olds who smoke increased by 25 per cent in England during the first lockdown
  • Over 62,000 more young adults smoke, compared to before the pandemic**
  • Researchers from the University of Sheffield and UCL also found that over 4.5 million more adults would be classed as high-risk drinkers during the same period

The number of 18-34 year-olds who smoke increased by 25 per cent in England during the first lockdown, according to a study conducted by the University of Sheffield and UCL published today (25 August 2021) in the journal Addiction.

Funded by Cancer Research UK, the study shows over 652,000 more young adults smoke, compared to before the pandemic**. 

The researchers from the University of Sheffield and UCL 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. 

The good news was that 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.  

While 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’.  

This study highlights the wider impacts of the Covid pandemic on people’s behaviour and the extent to which these impacts have varied across the population. Some people are drinking and smoking less, but this new study also shows a worrying rise in the number of people drinking at levels likely to harm their health.

Colin Angus 

Senior Research Fellow, Sheffield Alcohol Research Group

Smoking is the biggest preventable cause of cancer – it’s known to cause at least 15 different cancer types. And drinking even small amounts of alcohol increases the risk of seven different types of cancer. 

Dr Sarah Jackson, lead author, said: “The first lockdown was unprecedented in the way it changes 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 helping those who do, to quit.” 


Additional information

*To view the full study please visit: Addiction
**CRUK extrapolations comparing smoking prevalence of in 18-34 year olds in England 21.5 per cent before lockdown (August 2019 - February 2020) to 26.8 per cent during the first lockdown (April 2020- July 2020) and using ONS mid-year population estimates for 2020 to estimate the number of people this represents. This includes those taking up smoking for the first time and those who have relapsed after not smoking for at least a year. 
CRUK estimates that around 3,300,000 18-34 year olds in England were classed as smokers during the first lockdown in April 2020- July 2020.  
***Comparing high-risk drinking prevalence of all adults in England of 25.8 per cent August 2019 - February 2020 to 36 per cent in April 2020- July 2020 and using ONS mid-year population estimates for 2020 to estimate the number of people this represents.  
High-risk drinking defined by an Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test – consumption (AUDIT-C) score ≥5 
Smokefree is defined in the Government ambition as five per cent of the total adult population smoking.  

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