How Worried You Should Be About Your Lockdown Smoking Habit

Whether you’re stress smoking like an Olsen twin or using quarantine to quit, coronavirus has drastically altered people’s smoking habits.
Phoebe Hurst
London, United Kingdom
May 22, 2020, 8:49am
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Photo by Sian Bradley. 

Ellie hasn't smoked for nearly 60 days.

Normally, she'd smoke a cigarette at the bus stop in the morning, then another when she got to work. If she was on a night out, she'd spend much of it in the smoking area, asking to borrow lighters from strangers.

Suffice to say, she is gasping for a cigarette right now.

Since the coronavirus lockdown began, catching the bus and going to work – not to mention asking to bum a light on a crowded pub patio – are all distant memories. Ellie has been isolating with her mum at her aunt and uncle's house in Essex. Her family doesn't know that she smokes, and not being able to leave the house regularly makes it impossible to get away for a sneaky cig.

"Someone would suspect something and start an argument about it," says 20-year-old Ellie. "I popped to the village shop a few days ago to get some milk and considered getting a pack of cigarettes, but as I contemplated it in the queue it almost felt like a chore. I'd have to buy cigarettes, find a lighter, try to smoke it in peace, and then conceal the evidence before going back home."

Nearly two months since Boris Johnson announced the social distancing measures that closed businesses, limited outdoor activities and stopped the majority of people from going to work, our lives have been upended in ways never previously imagined. Stuck at home away from friends and family, it's unsurprising that our unhealthy habits have either increased (UK alcohol sales were up 30 percent in March, as one in five Brits who drink reported consuming more often) or transformed into barely sustainable self-improvement projects – we all know a former couch potato using lockdown to get really into running.

Approaches to smoking in lockdown are similarly divisive. More than a quarter of smokers in France said their tobacco consumption increased during lockdown, and the South African government's attempt to ban cigarette sales during coronavirus immediately resulted in a black market for tobacco products. For people like Ellie, however, being quarantined with family is simply not conducive to a nicotine habit.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. "I wonder if, when post-lockdown life begins, will I pick up the cigarettes again?" she says. "Or will I be able to go without?"

Along with the numerous young people forced to move back home during the coronavirus crisis, thanks to lack of government support for renters and the difficulty of Universal Credit applications, lockdown has impacted social smokers. Those people who swear they quit for good after uni, until precisely 2.5 pints in, when they canvas the entire pub to see if anyone has a spare filter.

"I think smoking and drinking in a social setting come hand-in-hand," says Brandan, 23, based in London. "Smoking areas are unavoidable spaces and you get to speak to different people – I miss that. Since the lockdown I've completely stopped smoking. I haven’t found it hard not having a smoke, but I’m sure once this is over I'll probably do it socially."

Sean, 31 and also in London, says he hasn’t considered having a cigarette since the lockdown started. That might change when the pubs open again, though. "I know how easy it is to fall back into it once you've had a few drinks, or are in a place or situation or with people you relate to smoking," he says. "Saying that, the longer I go without one, the better position I'll be in to quit completely, so I'm hopeful that's one good thing that will come out of lockdown."

Both Brandan and Sean are happy to have reduced their cigarette habits, even if it is under such strange circumstances. Despite nicotine patches being investigated as a potential coronavirus treatment, smoking isn’t a great hobby to have during a respiratory disease pandemic. A Chinese study examining the differences between early smoker and non-smoker COVID-19 patients found that a higher percentage of smokers suffered severe symptoms. Smokers are also more likely to have heart disease and chronic lung conditions, which makes them more vulnerable to a type of inflammation caused by the disease. And that’s not to mention the unhygienic hand-to-face contact that comes from actually smoking a cigarette. Vaping, the dubious alternative to smoking, has its own set of issues.

Writing in The Conversation, addiction psychiatrist Amy Harrington described the coronavirus pandemic as "giving smokers more reasons to give up the habit" and "creating a unique window of opportunity to do so".

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Photo by Sian Bradley.

In a perfect world, every smoker would use lockdown to quit for good. But the coronavirus crisis is a uniquely anxiety-inducing time, without the added stress of trying to ditch a nicotine addiction. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has reported a 43 percent increase in urgent mental health cases since the end of March, and women in particular are being impacted by the emotional toll of the pandemic. For all its obvious faults, smoking has the terrible advantage of being a great stress reliever for some. With thousands out of work or homeless due to coronavirus, and experts warning of a second wave in Europe, stress smoking like an Olsen twin through the whole thing is hardly a surprising response.

Tom, a 24-year-old student from Suffolk, smoked between ten to 20 cigarettes a day pre-lockdown. "I was working part-time, so either working in the library or in a bar, which meant everything is permeated by a smoke break," he says. "I have a terrible fiddling disposition, so if I’m just sitting then I’ll constantly just lean for my tobacco."

During the lockdown, his cigarette habit has increased – due in part to stress. "It's the same characteristics but just worse, I guess. I’ve moved back to Suffolk and am trying to complete a shambolic last term of uni, so just sitting, writing and smoking constantly."

Another side effect of the lockdown – one that all the willpower and Allen Carr books in the world may struggle to defeat – is boredom. Connie, a former casual smoker from Sheffield, has been smoking more since March, simply for something to do. "At the time of lockdown starting, I was probably smoking five a day," she says. "During lockdown it's become a 20-a-day habit, which I’m not proud of. I think this stems from boredom more than anything else, and breaks my day up a little."

Anton, 26, from Glasgow, goes so far as to view smoking as a rejection of the limits placed on us during lockdown. "In a kind of perverse way, smoking seems like an act of rebellion," he says. "Everyone's talking about productivity, getting fit and self-betterment – and of course, I'm doing all those things as far as I can. But those cigs on my park walk during the day feel as though they form a little window of time where I can get away."

Smoking is bad, whichever way you look at it. The NHS names it as the biggest cause of death and illness in the UK, responsible for 78,000 deaths every year. At the same time, dealing with the huge psychological weight of the coronavirus crisis is mentally draining. If you smoke through lockdown then there's no doubt it’s bad for your health – but it's also an understandable coping method.

Ellie's aunt developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from smoking, and she hopes to quit cigarettes for good. Post-lockdown, she knows how hard it will be hard to resist the allure of her beloved old friend: the smoking area.

"Once the pubs and clubs are back open again, I will definitely give in and ponce a cigarette from someone," Ellie says. "That will be the catalyst – the first cigarette pinched from the smoking area."

We can only dream.


This article originally appeared on VICE UK.