The number of 18 to 34 year-olds in England who smoke increased by 25% in the first lockdown, according to a study published in the journal Addiction and funded by Cancer Research UK.
This equates to over 652,000 more young adults smoking compared to before the pandemic, according to the charity’s estimates.
The researchers also found that the number of high-risk drinkers rose by 40%, meaning that, during the first lockdown, over 4.5 million adults would be classed as high-risk drinkers. This trend was particularly worrying in women (up 55%) as well as people from lower socioeconomic groups (up 64%).
There’s no ‘safe’ level of smoking or drinking, and stopping smoking or cutting down drinking will help to reduce your risk of cancer.
– Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive
While the study doesn’t explain why these changes occurred, researchers suggest it’s possible that some may have taken up these up for the first time or relapsed to help them ‘cope’.
What does this mean for smoke-free England?
Though increases in existing smokers quitting successfully means overall levels of smoking in adults remains stable, the charity warns the surge among young adults cannot be ignored ahead of the Government publishing its Tobacco Control Plan to help deliver its goal for England to become smoke-free by 2030.
And, as it stands, achieving this goal requires smokers to quit at a rate of around 40% faster than predicted.
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, believes that 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.
“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 said: “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.”
Smoking is the biggest preventable cause of cancer – it’s known to cause at least 15 different cancer types, and earlier this month Cancer Research UK released estimates that smoking is responsible for nearly twice as many cancer cases in lower income groups compared to higher income groups.
The long-term impact on public health
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.
– Dr Sarah Jackson, lead author and principal research fellow at University College London (UCL)
As with smoking, some existing heavy drinkers did make attempts to cut down during the first lockdown but, this was only observed in adults from higher socioeconomic groups.
Drinking even small amounts of alcohol increases the risk of 7 different types of cancer, and, worryingly, high-risk drinking was up by 55% in women and 64% in people from lower socioeconomic groups.
The researchers warn that if trends continue in this way, health inequalities linked to alcohol could worsen.
Dr Sarah Jackson, lead author from UCL, said: “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.”
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