The COVID-19 pandemic brought newfound levels of hardship to people of all backgrounds around the world, as we all faced universal challenges regardless of our wealth or social status.
Naturally these challenges have placed extreme pressure on many, and despite the universal nature of the issues, there are those in society that have been hit harder than others. The Elderly and the young in the UK in particular have faced a staggering amount of fear, uncertainty and a stark shift in freedoms marking a significant departure from normality, which I think we can all understand!
With added stress comes a desire to reduce it, and one of the oldest “pick-me-ups” in history is the smoking of tobacco. While national smoking levels have hit new lows in recent years, 6.1 Million smokers still remain in the UK. In fact, the BBC Reports that since lockdown began, an additional 652,000 young people have joined that total, becoming smokers themselves within the timing of the lockdowns experienced throughout the UK.
Cancer Research UK has stated that the number of 18-34 year olds who classed themselves as smokers increased by a quarter, from 21.5% to 26.8%.
Why Have Young People Taken Up Smoking During Lockdown?
The data as it stands reveals the extent to which youth uptake has increased, however it does not provide insight into the reasons behind such a dramatic shift in such a short time.
Despite this, it has long been understood that the nicotine released when smoking acts as a stimulant, naturally reducing stress – this is the belief of many experts in the field, who are attributing the pressures and abnormalities of lockdown conditions as the driving factors behind massively increased stress levels, which has potentially led many to develop a smoking habit as a result.
A sudden departure from normal education and the lack of any real face-to-face social interaction both in that setting and beyond will undoubtedly have played a major role in raising youth stress levels, as well as those individuals who found themselves restricted to a domestic environment that may have been less than positive.
It has been reported frequently throughout lockdown that domestic abuse and social issues were massively exacerbated during lockdown, and while not applicable to all, it is highly likely that a percentage of the young people now identifying as smokers, have adopted the habit as a form of escapism.
The data behind the statistics has come from monthly Alcohol Toolkit Studies, which assessed the frequency of alcohol and tobacco consumption. These studies not only highlight the issues of youth smoking uptake, but also revealed that alcohol consumption has increased almost in tandem with these figures.
This additional finding only further supports the belief that stress has been a driving factor behind the increase, with Alcohol sharing the same stigma as a damaging method of escapism from those unable to be socially mobile.
Lead researcher Doctor Sarah Jackson of University College London has said in response to the findings:
"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."
In an interesting caveat to the trends identified in young people, the rate of smoking in adults remained largely flat. This raises further questions as to why and how the impacts of lockdown have affected the young to such an extreme degree by comparison.
In Response To The Findings
As many will expect, the response to the findings above has been one of concern and cements the continued belief that more decisive action is required to control the uptake of tobacco and alcohol consumption.
Indeed, since the data has been published we have seen the governments plan for a “smoke free future” in the UK by 2030 step up several gears, with recent reports citing proposed legislature that may see “Smoking Kills” printed on individual cigarettes alongside an increase from 18 to 21 for the legal age of sale of tobacco products.
Further to this we have also seen e-cigarettes being trialled in NHS A&E centres in five major hospitals throughout the UK, and the MHRA calling for manufacturers to submit their vaping devices for approval to become medically licenced and available on prescription - a reality that seemed impossible for our industry only five years ago.
All these actions mark the intensifying spotlight being shone on tobacco consumption and its associated dangers. As well as the increased awareness of these risks and a desire to take action by consumers.
This is further supported by the data in the studies described above, which revealed more than just youth uptake. Contrary to it in fact, it was also found that the pandemic acted as a trigger for many people both young and old to think about quitting smoking altogether.
There were increases in the number of existing smokers quitting successfully according to the figures. Given that older people report being more worried about becoming seriously ill from Covid, health concerns may have served as a greater deterrent to them than to younger people, say investigators.
Despite this positive, the concern around youth uptake remains. Deborah Arnott, chief executive of health charity ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) and most famously the loudest voice behind the 2020 UK menthol ban maintains that swift action is needed to reverse the trend. Going on to say:
“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.”
"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 smoke-free by 2030."
Time will now tell what further legislative and social impacts we will experience as the government continues to intensify it’s tobacco control plan, and it remains to be seen just how much influence this may have on vaping and e-cigarette products and consumers alike.