Although smoking has reduced massively over the last 70 years, worrying new figures show the boredom and stress of lockdown led to many more young people taking up the habit.
Research funded by Cancer Research UK found that during the first lockdown there was a 25% increase in 18 to 34-year-olds who smoke, which translated into a rise of more than 652,000 young adults.
Bearing in mind that smoking rates had fallen from 82% in 1948 to 14.7% in 2019, it’s a concerning trend – as despite life returning to nearly normal as pandemic restrictions end, once nicotine addiction has kicked in, it won’t be nearly as easy for new smokers to lose the cigarettes.
Action on Smoking and Health, says most smokers want to quit – in 2018 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found 58.4% of adult smokers wanted to stop – but they find it tough to give up without help.
Ash say only about 5% of unaided quit attempts result in smokers giving up for good, but quitting support can increase the chances of success fourfold.
And as well as official smoking cessation support like NHS Smokefree, the support of friends and family can be invaluable.
“With the worrying rise in young people smoking during the pandemic it would be great for people to look out for their friends,” says Hazel Cheeseman, Ash’s deputy chief executive.
“Smokers are most likely to quit successfully if they get help. Long-term stopping smoking improves not just health but also wellbeing and has been estimated to have the same impact as antidepressants.”
Here’s how to help a mate who’s trying to quit…
1. Help them avoid emotional triggers
Many smokers will reach for a fag if they’re feeling stressed, lonely, bored or anxious – or perhaps even when they’re happy or satisfied, NHS Smokefree advises on their website.
Let them know you’re always there to chat if they need you, whatever the time.
2. Encourage them to exercise – and do it with them
As well as simply being good for you, physical activity can help take smokers’ minds off cigarettes, and make them feel healthier and hopefully less likely to light up and cancel out their exercise efforts.
Offer to exercise with them – it’ll be good for you too, and it’s much easier to motivate yourself if you’re not exercising alone.
3. Help them identify and avoid situations that make them smoke
According to NHS Smokefree, there are many ‘pattern triggers’, like drinking alcohol or coffee, driving, or taking a break at work, can lead people to light up.
Help your friend identify what their triggers are, and devise a plan to avoid them, perhaps by thinking of ways they can change their routine, suggesting replacements like e-cigarettes or chewing gum, or buying them a stress ball so they’ve got something else to do with their hands.
Ash says research suggests electronic cigarettes are relatively harmless in comparison with smoking, and Cheeseman suggests: “Encourage them to try alternative nicotine products like an e-cigarette to help manage the short-term cravings.”
4. Keep them busy
Encourage them to do things to take their mind off cigarettes, like going for a walk with you, going to the cinema (where they can’t smoke), and helping them change their routine so they’re not doing things where they would normally have smoked.
5. Quit yourself
If you smoke, try to quit with your mate, and if you don’t smoke, make sure your social group knows your friend is trying to quit and ask them not to smoke when he or she is around.
“If you’re a smoker yourself, get your friends to join you quitting – people who quit together are more likely to succeed,” stresses Cheeseman.
6. Help them focus on the positives
There’s much more to gain than to lose when people quit smoking, so keep drumming it into your friend how well they’re doing and what they’re gaining, both health-wise and financially.
“Focusing on what you gain by stopping rather than what you lose is important,” says Cheeseman.
“Some people save up the money they would have spent on cigarettes to reward themselves, others join the gym and make the most of being able to breathe easier.”
7. Point them towards official help
As well as support from you, there’s plenty of official help out there – smokers trying to quit can call the NHS helpline on 0300 123 1044 or download the NHS Smokefree app.