Health campaigners have urged the Government to be more ambitious in their efforts to tackle smoking as new figures reveal a dramatic rise in the number of young people becoming addicted to nicotine.
According to a new study published in the journal Addiction, the number of 18-34 year-olds who smoke increased by 25% in England during the first lockdown. This means that over 652,000 more young adults smoke, compared to before the pandemic.
Funded by Cancer Research UK, 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%.
This trend was particularly worrying in women (up 55%) as well as people from lower socioeconomic groups (up 64%).
The Government will soon publish its tobacco control plan to help deliver its goal for England to become smoke-free by 2030. However, according to the research, , meeting this target would require smokers to quit at a rate of around 40% faster than predicted.
Dr 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 helping those who do, to quit.’
In response to the publication of the research, Deborah Arnott, chief executive of health charity ASH, said: ‘Swift action is needed to reverse this worrying trend. The growing number of young adult smokers is a ticking time bomb, as smoking is an addiction which puts people on a path to premature death and disability which is hard to escape.
‘The Government has committed to publish a new Tobacco Control Plan this year, which is welcome. However, the new figures provide proof, if it were needed, that unless the Plan is sufficiently ambitious and well-funded it will not deliver the Government’s ambition for England to be Smokefree by 2030.’