The smoke-stained truth: why the COVID-19 scare isn’t enough to stop the UK’s tobacco addiction 

Despite COVID-19 health concerns, a new Mintel study has shown more than 50% of smokers ‘stress-smoked’ during the pandemic and 30% of smokers have been smoking more regularly since its start. The study also revealed that 10% of UK smokers have started smoking again after quitting due to the arrival of COVID-19.

Smokers still buy cigarettes despite years of images of dirty lungs and dying people - so why would the pandemic be any different?  Ever-emerging data, and of course a pandemic hasn’t been enough to eradicate - or even reduce the numbers of smokers in the UK.

The survey also suggested a major disconnect with 65% of smokers concerned that COVID-19 is more dangerous to them. 

But COVID-19 hasn’t just brought a health scare. It has raised concerns over job security, physical health, social isolation, loneliness, mental health and boredom. When we consider stress relief as one of the popular reasons to smoke, it’s understandable that the current environment has made it challenging for smokers to quit. 

A survey conducted by Daniel Tzu-Hsuan Chen on UK smoking behaviour supports this thinking as he identifies:

“Many respondents expressed that the pandemic had a more negative impact on their mental health and the impact was more pronounced among those who smoked more.

“Additionally, these pandemic-induced adverse psychological outcomes may increase the risk of addictive substance abuse and engage in addictive behaviours, further weakening the immune system and increasing vulnerability to COVID-19 infection. 

“This is particularly relevant for nicotine addiction, as smokers may rely on tobacco and nicotine as their main method to manage stress and anxiety.”

This is particularly true when we investigate the smoking prevalence by socio-demographics. The GOV.UK website detailed a higher prevalence among adults from more disadvantaged groups. And Mintel’s study shows a larger uptake in the younger demographic with 39% of smokers aged 18-34 saying they are now smoking more regularly. 

In order to achieve smoking cessation, alongside greater uptake of Stop Smoking services, there is a distinct need for more overall health and wellbeing support, which will extend to both financial advice and greater support within academic environments and workplaces

PDH Joint Chief Executive and Behavioural Change Expert, Alison Meadows says: 

“Change will only occur when we tackle health holistically. Smokers are already aware of why they shouldn’t smoke, so we need to examine why they do smoke and ask the important questions. 

“Why did the individual start smoking? What do they see as the benefits of smoking? What positive associations do they have with smoking? What stops them from giving up? Many of these questions can be explored within local Stop Smoking services, which we help to mobilise and market.

“It’s unlikely anyone will smoke with a mission to deteriorate their own health, so we must search harder on a personal perspective, and provide the relevant emotional wellbeing support, as well as the physical. 

“As a company, we believe health issues are interconnected and smoking is just another example of that.”

It’s evident that a more holistic approach is needed to tackle the UK’s tobacco addiction, as research shows that mental wellbeing challenges take a more powerful hold over smokers than health scares.