Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care


Smoking cessation and high-risk drinking increased in lockdown

29 October 2020

The percentage of people who reported stopping smoking more than doubled after the Covid-19 lockdown was implemented in March, according to a new study led by Dr Sarah Jackson and Professor Jamie Brown (UCL Behavioural Science & Health).


The research also found that high-risk drinking increased after lockdown despite the proportion of adults trying to reduce their alcohol intake being twice as high as before lockdown.

The study, published today in Addiction, analysed data from the Smoking and Alcohol Toolkit Studies, a series of monthly surveys of adults in England, to see how people’s smoking, drinking and quitting behaviour changed from before the March lockdown to after lockdown was implemented.

Data was collected between April 2019 and February 2020 and then in April 2020. 1,717 people participated per month on average before lockdown and 1,674 participated in April 2020.

The results showed that the rate of quit attempts (any serious attempt to stop smoking in the past year) among smokers increased from 29.1% before lockdown to 39.6% in April 2020. Smoking cessation (people reporting to have quit in the past year) more than doubled from 4.1% before lockdown to 8.8% in April 2020. Additionally, smokers were no less likely to use some form of cessation support than before lockdown, with increased uptake of remote support such as quit lines, websites, and apps.

Dr Sarah Jackson (UCL Behavioural Science and Health), lead author, said: “The fact we saw rates of quit attempts and cessation increase after the start of lockdown is encouraging.

“It may be that the pandemic has made people more concerned about the effects of smoking on their respiratory health. Stopping smoking brings immediate benefits to health, including for people with an existing smoking-related disease. Now is a fantastic opportunity to join the hundreds of thousands of other people quitting in England. Quitting may also have the added benefit of reducing demands on our NHS during these difficult times.”

The prevalence of high-risk drinking was significantly higher after lockdown at 38.3% 2020 compared to the average of 25.1% before the lockdown. High-risk drinking was defined as a score of five or more on the AUDIT-C – a screening tool used by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The study also showed use of evidence-based support for alcohol reduction by high-risk drinkers has decreased with no compensatory increase in use of remote support.

Professor Jamie Brown (UCL Behavioural Science and Health) added: “The observed increase in high-risk drinking is a serious cause for concern and requires a public health response. The recent Commission on Alcohol Harm recommended investment in services and measures to reduce affordability.

“These findings also have a possible implication for the pandemic: excessive alcohol consumption may reduce vigilance around social distancing and adherence to other protective behaviours.”  

The authors note that a limitation of the study is only having one wave of post-lockdown data collected to date, and that this study provides a simple assessment of changes in the prevalence of key indicators of smoking and alcohol use. They hope to be able to provide further analysis as more data becomes available. Also, there is uncertainty because the survey had to switch from face-to-face to telephone interviews due to the pandemic. However, analyses suggest that it is reasonable to compare data from before and after the lockdown, despite the change in method.

Data collection for the Smoking and Alcohol Toolkit Studies is supported by Cancer Research UK.

The authors are currently looking for smokers who want to quit to take part in a new, large study. For details visit www.uclsmokingstudy.co.uk.



  • Source: Pixabay Credit: Martin Budenbender (CC.2.0)

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