The number of young people who smoke increased by a quarter during the first coronavirus lockdown, new research suggests.
There was a 25% rise in 18 to 34-year-olds who smoke – resulting in more than 652,000 new smokers among the age group.
But it also found increases in the number of smokers quitting successfully,
Researchers, from University College London and the University of Sheffield, said there was a 99% rise in people across all groups successfully quitting during lockdown compared with pre-pandemic.
The study also found there was an increased prevalence of high-risk drinking among all groups (40%), but the rise was greater among women (55%) and people from less advantaged backgrounds (64%).
Published in the journal Addiction, the paper said: “In conclusion, the first COVID-19 lockdown in England in March-July 2020 was associated with increased smoking prevalence among younger adults and an increased prevalence of high-risk drinking among all socio-demographic groups.
“Smoking cessation activity also increased: more younger smokers made quit attempts during lockdown and more smokers quit successfully.”
It added: “However, socio-economic disparities in patterns of drinking behaviour were evident: high-risk drinking increased by more among women and those from less advantaged social grades, but the rate of alcohol reduction attempts increased only among the more advantaged social grades.”
Smoking is the biggest preventable cause of cancer, according to Cancer Research UK, and is known to cause at least 15 different types of the disease.
The charity said that drinking just small amounts of alcohol increases the risk of seven different types of cancer.
Dr Sarah Jackson, lead author and principal research fellow at UCL, said it was “fantastic” that some smokers successfully kicked the habit during the first lockdown.
But she added: “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.”
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of health charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), said that swift action is needed to reverse the “worrying trend” of rising young smokers.
She said: “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 smoke-free by 2030.”
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “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.”