Has working from home stopped people from quitting smoking?

Has working from home put a halt on the number of people quitting? Credit: PA

A decade decline in smoking in England has slowed to almost a complete halt since the pandemic, with some experts blaming working from home.

Experts led by University College London (UCL) analysed data from 2020 to 2022 to see what impact the coronavirus pandemic had on smoking rates.

The study found that, before the pandemic, smoking prevalence fell by 5.2% per year, but this rate of decline slowed to 0.3% per year during the pandemic.

Researchers suggested that people who are less affluent may have felt more urgency to quit during the pandemic, while those who were wealthier may have carried on smoking due to stress.

Figures also point toward more young people taking up smoking during the pandemic due to "higher levels of stress, upheaval, and social isolation."

Stress, upheaval and social isolation may have caused younger people to pick up smoking

The researchers said: “Possible explanations for these differences include those from less advantaged social grades being more likely to experience financial impacts of the pandemic (eg due to job loss or reduced earnings) which make (taking up or continuing) smoking less affordable, or work in frontline jobs that increase exposure to Covid-19 and might make quitting smoking higher priority.

“In addition, manual jobs were less disrupted through the pandemic, whereas many non-manual jobs switched to home working, leading to loneliness and poorer mental health, which may have made people in more advantaged social grades less inclined to try to stop smoking.”

The study warned that the government needs to “reignite progress in reducing smoking among the more advantaged social grades and identify ways to accelerate the decline among less advantaged groups” if it is to get near its target of making England smoke-free by 2030.

Smoking had been falling for more than 20 years, but is stalling

Lead author Dr Sarah Jackson, from UCL, said that smoking prevalence has been "falling among adults in England at a steady rate for more than 20 years."

“Our data show that this decline has stalled, with an increase in quitting potentially having been offset by a rise in people taking up smoking or an increase in late relapse.

The study, funded by Cancer Research UK and published in the journal BMC Medicine, examined survey data from 101,960 adults between June 2017 and August 2022.

The researchers estimated the proportion of smokers in England as 16.2% in June 2017, falling to 15.1% by the start of the pandemic, and remaining unchanged as of August 2022.

Other UK-wide data published in September by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), shows that almost 13% of all adults smoked in 2022.

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Dr Ian Walker, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of policy, said: “These findings demonstrate why we can’t be complacent when it comes to tobacco. It can be easy to start smoking but notoriously hard to quit.

“World-leading measures, such as changing the age of sale of tobacco, alongside critical funding to boost smoking cessation services, are essential to help us achieve a smoke-free UK."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are taking bold action to make the country smoke-free and will introduce a new law to stop children who turn 14 this year or younger from ever legally being sold cigarettes, protecting an entire generation from the harms of smoking.

“We have doubled funding for stop smoking services to nearly £140 million a year, helping 360,000 people to quit with affordable and easy access support.

“We are also supporting local authorities to provide one million free vapes via our world-first Swap to Stop programme and we are providing financial incentives to support pregnant women to quit.”