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I was 14 the first time I had a cigarette (mam and dad, don’t read this). I was hanging out with a group of friends after school and, yes, I got peer pressured into it. Not wanting to feel left out and curious about what it would actually feel like, I had my first experimental puff – and coughed up my lungs.
Since then, I’ve been on and off the cigarettes, depending on who I’ve been with and how many pints I’ve sunk. Because I only smoked on nights out, I refused to consider myself a ‘proper smoker’ – despite sometimes going through a packet of 20 Malboro menthols in one sitting. As an asthmatic, I knew it was stupid to be puffing away in the first place, however occasionally.
But most of my friends smoked and it felt like a social activity – a chance to take a breather (cough) and catch up outside the pub or club. As well as the nicotine coursing through my veins with every drag, I felt at ease when I smoked with others. It melted away any stress or anxieties –– and doubled with alcohol, it was like I didn’t have a care in the world.
But who are we kidding? Social smoking is still smoking. And even one or two cigarettes can put your health at risk.
“Nicotine addiction is not just about keeping the level of the drug topped up to avoid withdrawal symptoms,” Professor Robert West, an expert on smoking from University College London, explains. “Addiction works by forming an association between situations where a person would typically smoke, which then creates the impulse to smoke when they find themselves in that situation again. A lot of daily smokers report very strong situational cravings.”
In 2019, I decided to bin my casual smoking habit for good. That felt like a doubly wise decision by the time Covid-19 came round – a virus that attacks the lungs, heart and can cause a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste.
It’s been an anti-smoking campaign in itself – according to a survey by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), more than one million people have given up smoking since the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Of those who had quit in the previous four months, 41% said it was in direct response to coronavirus.
“Covid-19 and the lockdown has changed our behaviour in so many different ways that it’s not surprising that it’s impacted on some of our existing habits.” Hazel Cheeseman, ASH’s director of policy, tells HuffPost UK. “People already know the dangers of smoking and what the harms are to your lungs and circulatory system, but with the added impetus of a respiratory pandemic.
“It doesn’t take putting two and two together for people to cut down or stop completely.”
Carisse Mahon, 19, worked on reception at a gym in Manchester until the start of lockdown. She quit smoking as part of her mission to focus on her health while she was furloughed and stuck at home.
“I started smoking at 13 to fit in. At first, it was ‘social’ but then I smoked more to cope with stress – up to a pack of 20 a day if I was drinking. But I wanted to focus on health and fitness while I was furloughed,” she explains.
“Lockdown has shown me that I don’t want or need to smoke, it’s just a desire to fit in with other people. I’ve been using the Smoke-Free app to monitor health improvements and my nails and teeth are no longer stained, I feel a lot healthier. I’ve got no intention of going back.”
Now more than ever, the coronavirus crisis has highlighted just how important it is to protect and look after our health. Smoking-related illnesses have been linked to worse outcomes from Covid-19, include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, stroke and other heart conditions.
Combine an awareness of these health risks with our sense of imminent danger and all the time lockdown has given us for reflection and self-improvement, and it’s no wonder people are more focused on quitting.
Lee Dobson from Castleford, West Yorkshire, had smoked since he was 18, but his family got him to make a quit attempt and the pandemic further spurred him on. Dobson had to give up work as a painter and decorator after an epileptic seizure (something smokers are four times more likely to experience) caused him to lose his sight in one eye.
He has now been smoke-free for nearly five months. “Since quitting, I don’t even get coughs,” he explains. “With the present climate and coronavirus, I’m so glad I have. My niece who I am close to, was the person who motivated me – she said how much better I’d feel if I stopped smoking. I was sick.”
Respiratory consultant Dr Ruth Sharrock sees the terrible health problems caused by smoking day in day out in her work and advises: “My message to smokers today is, please, do not wait. Whether you are healthy now or already unwell because of smoking, today is the day to stop. It can transform your life.”
Among the thousands of people heeding this health advice, there is an age gap, however – with younger smokers quitting smoking in lockdown at a greater rate than older smokers. The ASH survey shows that around 400,000 people aged 16-29 have quit compared to 240,000 people in the over-50 age-group.
“It’s not surprising that the under 30s are changing their smoking behaviours – I think the social smoking element is likely to play a significant part because those social environments have been taken away,” says Hazel Cheeseman.
“People’s lives have been disrupted, where people have moved back to their family home or found temporary lockdown accommodation. This could be potentially preventing them from smoking or parents don’t know that they smoke, so therefore a change in their behaviour.”
Lockdown has transformed our social lives. We’ve not gone out for months and since the rules began to relax, many people are now wary – or more respectful – of other people’s boundaries. Post-lockdown social anxiety is also rife.
Yes, we’re spending more time in gardens and parks, rather than bars or clubs – which might have favoured a rise in smoking. But analysis using the YouGov Covid Tracker carried out on behalf of ASH and University College of London found that 25% of smokers said they were more likely to avoid smoking outside in places where it might inconvenience others. Meanwhile, the latest government amendment on pavement licenses requires pubs, restaurants and cafes to offer separate seating for smokers and non-smokers outside too.
“I would definitely ask others outright if they’re okay with me smoking now whereas before I wouldn’t even think twice,” says self-confessed social smoker Chloe Blows, 26, freelance PR from London, who says she has only smoked once or twice since the pandemic started.
She has also been more hesitant to spend money on her habit. “I’ve lost work and had to move back home because of the pandemic and like many others, my finances have been affected,” says Blows. She says she used to smoke menthols, but the ban on those, which came into force mid-lockdown in May, has left her reluctant to buy other cigarettes that she doesn’t even enjoy.
And then there’s the social factor. “Things like sharing cigarettes will be a thing of the past,” she reflects. “The packet and the lighter that’s obviously going to have fingerprints all over – something that used to be so mindless. Everything is going to be more thoughtful [now].
“In a way, when you actually start to think about it more, you enjoy it less.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.