Monday, 26 October 2020

Smoking during a pandemic

ASH are still pushing the idea that a million smokers quit in Britain in the early months of the pandemic. ASH's claims are often unreliable and this one is no different, and the real picture remains hazy. 

We know that tobacco duty revenues rose sharply during lockdown. Even in September, they were still 27% higher than they were in the same period last year. That could be entirely explained by people having less access to tobacco from the black and grey markets, but it doesn't immediately suggest that the number of smokers has rapidly declined.

I'm getting mixed messages. According to Campaign, this year's Stoptober focused on younger smokers because their ranks have been growing during the pandemic...

Some £1m is being spent on this year’s campaign, which is targeting smokers aged 35-60, as well as those in the 18-34 age group, because there has been a rise in smoking among this demographic during the pandemic.

But according to some researchers at Glasgow University, younger people were more likely to quit during lockdown:

Researchers found cigarette smoking also decreased during lockdown, from 15.1 per cent in 2017-19 to 12.1 per cent in April this year, with the decrease most apparent in the younger age groups and among men.

So what's really been happening? The Smoking Toolkit Study is updated every month and has produced some striking results. It shows an increase in the number of people who tried to stop smoking in the last year...

It also shows an increase in the number of people who succeeded in quitting smoking...

Sure enough, it seems that an unusually large proportion of smokers (8.3%) succeeded in quitting in the last twelve months...

The spike is obvious and visible. We don't know at what point in the last twelve months these people quit smoking, but there were 5.7 million smokers in England last year. Even if 8.3% of them had given up in spring as a direct result of COVID-19, it would be 473,000 people, not a million. And that is clearly not a plausible scenario.

The curious thing is that the increased quit rate doesn't seem to have had any real effect on overall smoking prevalence. Although there has been a small step change, it seems to have happened in the second half of 2019, not the first half of 2020.

Nor does there seem to have been any increase in smokers' motivation to quit since the start of the year.

Finally, there has been a notable upswing in the number of young people smoking:

Some of these data are so spiky that I wonder whether the lockdown messed up the methodology somewhat (the researchers were unable to collect any data in March). But, on the face of it, there has been an uptick in the quit rate in the last twelve months, albeit with far fewer than a million people involved, combined with an increase in the number of people who started smoking, especially under the age of 25. In sum, there has been no real change in the smoking rate so far this year.

No comments: