COVID-19 Lockdown drives up Youth Smoking.
The latter half of 2021 has seen some of the most dramatic changes to the way in which vaping and smoking are being perceived in recent years. Healthcare and governmental organisations are now pushing for the general public to understand and engage with vaping as a cessation tool, something that has long been the subject of heated debate.
There is a substantial body of evidence driving the tightening of tobacco controls and introduction of vaping to stop smoking services. This evidence draws on the findings of a number of studies that have been conducted at different times for almost a decade to-date. Not least the ongoing trial across 5 major NHS hospitals which are introducing e-cigarettes to patients enquiring about stopping smoking as a part of A&E visits.
Arguably one of the most concerning statistics to come to light however is that during the recent lockdowns at the behest of COVID-19, there has been a massive surge in the uptake of smoking by younger demographics. This fact alone has caused great concern among healthcare professionals and anti-smoking lobbyists, added to the urgency of rolling out the UK government’s ‘smoke free by 2030’ provisions.
The Surge in Young Smokers
The BBC reports that despite a continued downward trend in the number of UK smokers, during the pandemic in particular there has been an alarming increase in the number of young people adopting the habit for the first time.
In fact, 652,000 new smokers have been identified between the ages of 18 and 34. This means the total number of young smokers has risen from 21.5% to 26.8%, uplifting by a quarter according to Cancer Research UK.
In contrast to this however it was noted that during the same timeframe as the lockdown youth uptake, adult smoking rates remained largely flat. There were some instances of uplift in the number of successful quit attempts by existing smokers. It was felt that these people, particularly those in older demographics, were incentivised by a fear of the impact of contracting COVID whilst also being an active smoker.
The Reasons Behind the Surge
While fear of dealing with both COVID and smoking-related respiratory issues in tandem drove older groups to quit, the contrary has been observed as a catalyst for the youth uptake described above. Investigators looking into the alarming data have claimed that younger people have not shared these same concerns, highlighting the difference in where stresses were felt during the pandemic between age groups.
The links between stress and smoking have long been understood, with smoking being a historic “pick-me-up” despite the inherent health concerns associated with the habit. It has been theorised that the increased restrictions, preventing normal social activity and dramatically impacting daily routines, have affected young people arguably more-so that the old, who have placed more weight on health concerns.
In conjunction with the above theory, it is a fair assessment to assume boredom will have also played a role in driving youth uptake, with many young people being resigned to their homes with little to no outside stimulus.
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.
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."
Responding to the Statistics
The spike in young smokers has served as one of many prevalent reasons the UK smoking debate, and how best to tackle the issue, has reached new levels of intensity. Further research continues into the specific social and economic factors linked to the pandemic that may have catalysed the increase during such an event, however newfound weight is being granted to the over-arcing issue in Parliament and beyond.
In a relatively short space of time, we have seen new propositions reach parliament calling to raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21, alongside the recommendation to print individual warnings on cigarette sticks themselves which you can explore in detail in our blog.
At the same time as this, the MHRA has begun calling for manufacturers across the UK to submit vaping devices to become medically licensed, with the intent of making vaping available on prescription to those seeking cessation options – a landmark moment for the vaping industry at-large which would see the UK become the first country to do so.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of health charity ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) and leading voice behind the 2020 UK menthol ban maintains that swift action is needed to reverse the 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.”
"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."
We should no doubt expect to see even further restrictions placed on tobacco products in the coming months and years, however more excitingly for the vaping industry, it appears that next-generation products are finally being recognised as one of the best routes towards maximising the impact of stop-smoking services.