My GP and I have a friendly relationship. Once, during a telephone appointment, he asked me if I was a smoker. “No,” I replied, playfully. “But maybe next year will be more eventful.” That’s because I am of the social smoking variety – that cheeky, sneaky (and possibly most annoying) breed. We are the beggars at the barbecue, eyeing up your rolling papers and asking for a small one. The scrounger at the Christmas party, suggesting a twos.
You will know us by our ancient packet of Greek cigarettes found in a kitchen drawer – so old they no longer light – or our giveaways as we exit a wedding: “Want the rest of these fags? Take them, I’m not going to smoke them.” I can – and have – gone years without smoking, only to periodically step back into the smoking area and exclaim: “Wow, it’s so much emptier!”
Which, of course, is only a good thing: with tobacco control measures and public health action, smoking has been on a steady decline for decades. Until now. Last week, a new report found that in England the steady decline h as stalled, with the pandemic years (2020-2022) grinding it to a near halt. In the years before the pandemic, smoking was in decline by roughly 5% each year. During the pandemic, that number was just 0.3%.
So what happened? It’s not that people weren’t quitting. Overall, there was a 40% rise in people trying to quit, and a 120% rise in the proportion of people giving up. But these numbers were offset “by a rise in people taking up smoking or an increase in late relapse”, said the report’s lead author, Dr Sarah Jackson. Those people were, firstly, the middle classes, who were not giving up smoking to the same degree. And, secondly, young people, who despite decades of awareness on smoking harms, were picking up cigarettes in larger numbers. It’s too early to say whether the smoking decline returned to usual levels this year.
Why the resurgence among young people? Part of the government’s plan to make England smoke-free by 2030 involved promoting vapes as a smoking-cessation tool, but recent headlines about a possible ban on single-use vapes – especially the fruity flavoured ones marketed at young people – may have backfired. Whether they are healthy enough to be used as an aid for smoking cessation remains controversial, particularly in light of a recent Times investigation, which found: “Tobacco firms have bankrolled scientific papers playing down the risks of children vaping as part of a secretive lobbying campaign to boost e-cigarette sales.”
Meanwhile, the middle classes stuck to their smoking habits during the pandemic. The report suggested this demographic was more likely to be working from home – in clerical, managerial or professional roles – and was perhaps not as spurred on to quit as working-class smokers, who were a) more likely to have faced job insecurity and therefore needed to cut back on the cost of cigarettes, and b) more likely to work in public-facing sectors with higher exposure to Covid (therefore “making quitting a higher priority for health reasons”, the report says).
But what do I, a middle-aged manager and a first-year uni student, have in common when it comes to our smoking behaviours? It’s a question I think matters, and is too rarely mentioned in our national conversation about drugs (legal or illegal) – not just why we shouldn’t, why it’s bad for us and for others, but also why we do, what social function it serves, and what our society is failing to provide that is fulfilled by these unhealthy and dangerous options.
I have a theory. Many of us social smokers know it’s not just the nicotine that has a calming effect, but the activities around it – shared experience and the thrill of connection. And it is lack of people, lack of shared connection, I’d wager, that drives these other smoking behaviours too.
Young people disconnected from friends turn to the cigarette for comfort, while the home worker – isolated from colleagues to decompress with – sticks with smoking to relieve stress. Is it any wonder? Britain is in the grip of a loneliness “epidemic”. Fittingly, another bit of drug-centric research this month has found magic mushroom use has increased, amid a boom in research into how the fungi can help tackle anxiety and depression, and into a context where mental health help from the NHS is impossible for most to access?
So here’s my, ahem, back-of-a-fag-packet plan. This festive party season, I’m going to give social non-smoking a try. I’ll talk to a stranger without asking for a lighter. I’ll steal a quiet, intimate moment with a colleague, asking how it’s really going, without the excuse of a cigarette. I’ll find some other vice to hide from my mother. I even have the “stop social smoking” motto ready to go: “Spark a conversation instead of a cigarette.” If you’re listening, Rishi, it’s all yours.
Coco Khan is a commissioning editor for the Guardian and a writer. She is co-host of the politics podcast, Pod Save the UK