A further 4.8 million are estimated to be smoking the same amount as before the pandemic, while 1.9 million are believed to have cut down, according to a representative study of about 2,000 people from 30April to 13 May by YouGov and the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash).
Respondents to a Guardian callout cited heightened anxiety and stress due to the lockdown and the impact of Covid-19 as reasons for their increased smoking – along with the relative freedom of working at home and as excuses to step outside households.
“Anxiety and lockdown boredom mean I’m constantly relighting,” said 41-year-old Sharon (not her real name) in Glasgow, who is smoking more than 40 cigarettes a day – double her usual number. “It’s embarrassing, after having double pneumonia in January; I really want to stop smoking.”
News of the survey came as Ash accused the government of taking an unreasonably long time to make a decision over the release of £350,000 in funding it was asked to apply for by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for a “quit smoking for coronavirus” campaign, while a unique “window of opportunity” to encourage smokers amidst the pandemic closes.
“Quit for Covid is being run on a shoestring, and without adequate funding can only have a limited impact,” said Deborah Arnott, the chief executive of Ash – which receives a £140,000 annual government grant along with funding from large charities.
“The Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England are supportive and even asked us to apply for funding from the government’s charity scheme when it opened in April. We were told there would be a decision within a week, so the project could start in May and run till October.
“Since then there has been radio silence and we understand the decision now rests with No 10. There is a window of opportunity to provide the support and encouragement smokers need to Quit for Covid, but it is closing fast.”
The DHSC told the Guardian on 8 May it was grateful that Ash had submitted its bid and would let it know the outcome shortly. No 10 directed the Guardian to the DHSC.
About 78,000 people in the UK die from smoking every year, according to the NHS, while many more live with debilitating smoking-related illnesses.
Noel Baxter, a GP and a medical adviser to the British Lung Foundation, said it was vital for smokers to quit since they are more likely to develop severe symptoms of Covid-19 than non-smokers.
“Quitting smoking now is one of the best ways to protect yourself from viral infections, including coronavirus,” he said. “People who smoke are five times more likely to get flu and twice as likely to get pneumonia.
“For those who smoke, there are plenty of alternatives, including patches, gum, and sprays. While vaping is significantly less harmful to your health and can be a helpful way to quit smoking, if you can, it is best to stop vaping over time.”
Almost six months ago, the government was accused of undermining its ambition to make England smoke-free by 2030 after an anti-smoking campaign was cancelled following a 24% cut to the public health marketing budget.
However, it has been suggested that more than 300,000 people in the UK have successfully quit smoking during the Covid-19 crisis, and a significant number of respondents to the Guardian callout said they had kicked the habit.
“I stopped smoking entirely when the lockdown began,” said Ben Robinson, a 32-year-old restaurant manager from Birmingham. “It seemed a great opportunity to finally commit. I had smoked constantly since the age of 14 and the damage was beginning to show.
“It feels good. I’m free from the constant guilt and crappy feelings smoking gives you, after talking about quitting for a decade. I feel in control now.”
Meanwhile, emerging small-scale reports suggesting that smokers could be less likely to require hospital treatment for coronavirus – possibly due to the effect of nicotine – have sowed doubt in the minds of a small number of people considering, or attempting, to quit, the Guardian callout showed.
“I have had a 60-a-day habit for 30 years,” said Ajay Sharma, 45, in Surbiton, south-west London. “Initially, I attempted to drastically cut down or even stop smoking due to Covid. Then I read a story in the Economist that only 5% of French coronavirus patients in hospital were smokers and decided to put this off.”