Impact of COVID-19 lockdown on smoking, drinking, and attempts to quit

New research finds more people tried to stop smoking during the COVID-19 lockdown in England, but high-risk drinking increased.

23 October 2020

Members of the SPECTRUM team, based at the UCL Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group, have co-authored a new paper looking at the effect of the COVID-19 lockdown on smoking and drinking.

The study, published in Addiction Journal, examined data from over 20,000 adults in England from before (April 2019–February 2020) to after (April 2020) the COVID-19 lockdown was implemented.

A rise in high-risk drinking

Whilst the study found no significant change in the prevalence of smoking, there was a rise in the occurrence of high-risk drinking during lockdown.

The authors describe this as a “cause for concern” during the pandemic, with potential health risks and the likelihood of a less cautious approach to protective health measures, such as social distancing.

More attempts to quit

Despite a rise in high-risk drinking, the study found that both high-risk drinkers and smokers were more likely to try and reduce drinking or quit smoking than before lockdown. The rate of smoking cessation also increased.

There could be several reasons behind the rise in efforts to drink less and quit smoking.

According to the authors, it’s possible that the pandemic and lockdown provided a “teachable moment” that prompted people to make healthy changes to their behaviour. The disruption to usual daily routines brought by lockdown may have also had an impact, with stay-at-home restrictions and changes to social activities.

Accessing remote support

With limited in-person contact during lockdown, there were more people accessing remote support to quit smoking, including telephone support, websites, and apps.

However, this pattern of behaviour was not seen among high-risk drinkers. The study found no increase in those accessing remote support, alongside a reported drop in people accessing traditional methods, such as prescription medication and face-to-face behavioural support.

The authors suggest that social media campaigns, directing smokers to relevant websites and apps for support to quit, might be linked to the rise in those accessing remote support – with no similar high-profile campaigns for alcohol.

Find out more

Read the paper in Addiction Journal

Visit the UCL Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group website