More than 1 million people in the UK are estimated to have quit smoking over the past four months during the coronavirus pandemic, with younger people kicking the habit at a higher rate than older smokers, a new analysis shows.
A further 440,000 people in the country have also used the pandemic as an opportunity to try to quit, according to the analysis by the organization Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and University College London (UCL), which used a YouGov survey of more than 10,000 people as the basis of their findings.
The campaign calls on older smokers in particular to take the pandemic as an opportunity to quit, as Covid-19 appears to be generally more severe in older patients. People in the 16-29 age group have quit smoking at more than twice the rate rate of smokers over the age of 50.
The UK government has advised that smokers could be at higher risk of suffering severe symptoms associated with Covid-19. The science on the different impacts on smokers and non-smokers, however, is not yet conclusive.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable illness, causing cancer, heart and lung disease. ASH said in a press release on Wednesday that smokers who are hospitalized with Covid-19 are more likely to suffer severe outcomes than non-smokers.
“My message to smokers today is, please, do not wait. Whether you are healthy now or already unwell because of smoking, today is the day to stop. It can transform your life,” Dr Ruth Sharrock, an expert in respiratory medicine, was quoted as saying in ASH’s statement.
Dr. Sarah Jackson, a senior research fellow at UCL’s Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group, cautioned that the findings relate only to quitting in the short term.
“Given that the rate of long-term success in quitting tends to be low, this is very unlikely to translate to a million fewer smokers in the UK, which would be a large decline in prevalence,” she said.
“At this relatively early stage of the pandemic, we don’t yet have a great deal of information on its impact on smoking and quitting behavior. Other data sources are not yet showing evidence of a large drop in smoking prevalence; it will be interesting to see if a substantial decline in smoking becomes evident over the coming months, and if so, whether this translates to a sustained reduction in the number of smokers in the UK,” she added.
John Britton, director of the UK Center for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies at the University of Nottingham, welcomed the analysis as “a rare piece of good news to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.”
“The estimate is based on a small sample and is of course based only on self-report — so we don’t know how reliable this finding is. But even if the true figure is only half as big -— ‘only’ half a million — that would represent a massive step forward in UK public health,” he said in a statement.
The UK has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 290,000 confirmed cases and more than 45,000 deaths, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.
Last year, the Office for National Statistics said 14.7% of Britons aged 18 years and above smoked cigarettes in 2018 — around 7.2 million people.