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expert reaction to survey analysis suggesting 1 million people in UK have stopped smoking since the COVID pandemic started

A survey, published by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and University College London (UCL), suggests that one million people in the UK have stopped smoking since the COVID-19 pandemic started.


Dr Sarah Jackson, Senior Research Fellow, UCL Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group, University College London, said:

“On the basis of this survey, an estimated million people have reported stopping smoking in the short term at any given moment over the past four months. 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. 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 behaviour. 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.”


Prof Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health, University of Edinburgh, and Chair in Cancer Prevention, Cancer Research UK, said:

“During the pandemic we may have forgotten that more than 250 people die every day in the UK from smoking. It remains the leading preventable cause of death. So it’s encouraging to see that during lockdown more people have tried to quit, and this is perhaps not surprising given that COVID-19 has such severe effects on respiratory health. Smokers may have been particularly concerned about their ability to recover from COVID-19 if they developed it.

“These results are based on a survey where people have reported attempts to stop smoking and success in quitting over the short term. The proportion in the sample who said they have tried or been successful has then been compared to UK population figures to estimate what the overall effect might be for smokers in the UK as a whole. This is a well-established approach to estimating population-level effects for reported behaviour change, but a few caveats need to be kept in mind.

“The sample of 10,251 in the YouGov survey is intended to be representative of the population as a whole but not necessarily of all smokers, and given that smokers make up around 14% of the population, the number of smokers in the survey will be relatively modest. In addition, the survey will have only been able to capture quitting in the short term. Even quitting for a short time has benefits and increases the chances of future longer term cessation. But most smokers (around three in four) who manage to stay stopped for a month will go back to smoking within a year. So we shouldn’t assume that these results suggest one million smokers have quit for good.

“Short term quit rates in this survey are higher for younger rather than older smokers and this is promising because if smokers can quit before the age of 35, their life expectancy returns to that of a non-smoker. More research will be needed to determine if these short term results affect population-level smoking rates in the UK. But the signs may be promising. Previous research of this kind, using very similar methods, estimated that around 700,000 smokers tried to quit when smoke-free legislation was introduced in 2006-2007 in the UK. Further studies showed that some of this group stayed stopped for the longer term, and smoking rates in the UK have declined at particularly encouraging rates since then.”


Prof John Britton, Director of the UK Centre for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies and Consultant in Respiratory Medicine, University of Nottingham, said:

“The report today that a million people may have quit smoking to protect themselves against severe illness from COVID-19 infection is 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.

“Smoking kills half of all long-term smokers, stealing a day of life for every four days of smoking after the age of around 35. Smoking kills unborn babies and damages the lungs of young children. Smoking causes or exacerbates a vast range of illnesses – lung cancer, heart disease, diabetes, chronic bronchitis, influenza, pneumonia and many more – so a reduction in the number of UK smokers of this magnitude will generate a huge reduction in demand on our NHS this coming winter and in years to come. It is a development to be welcomed and celebrated.”



* The analysis of YouGov’s COVID survey was undertaken by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and University College London (UCL). The press release by ASH was published at 00:01 UK time on Wednesday 15th July 2020.


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