Nearly half of adults drinking more than a year ago, study finds

Nina Massey, PA Science Correspondent
·4 min read

Nearly half of adults say they are currently drinking more alcohol than a year ago – while about one tenth say they have quit smoking since then, according to new research.

Some 49.1% of people said they were drinking more now than March and April last year, while 12.9% said they had stopped smoking in the same time period.

Men were more likely to report an increase in alcohol consumption than women – 51.6% of men as opposed to 46.6% of women, and people of all ages had increased their drinking similarly.

But there have been decreases in alcohol consumption among some groups, with two fifths (40.1%) of heavy drinkers (15-plus units a week) decreasing their alcohol intake.

Nine in 10 (91.5%) of those aged 18-29 who were drinking heavily a year ago have decreased their drinking, compared to a third of those drinking heavily aged 30-59 (37.5%) and 60-plus (35.5%).

More than one in 10 (12.9%) people who smoked in March and April last year say they have stopped smoking altogether.

This was similar across age groups, gender and household income.

While almost all (98.5%) of non-smokers and ex-smokers have remained so during the pandemic.

However, almost two fifths (39%) of adults say they are currently smoking more per day than they were a year ago, rising to 44.6% among those aged 60-plus.

Lead author Dr Elise Paul, UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health, said: “Our report shows that during the pandemic, alcohol consumption has increased for many.

“This could be due to a wide range of factors, including using alcohol to cope with stress and the absence of other ways in which to demarcate home and work life when working from home during the lockdown.

“The closure of non-essential shops and restriction of activities will also have had an impact, with people drinking more for lack of anything else to do, rather than due to a conscious decision to increase alcohol consumption.

“The reduction in smoking is good news, with far more people quitting than starting during lockdown.

“It remains to be seen whether these changes in smoking and alcohol consumption will continue long-term or start to reverse as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Launched in the week before lockdown started, the ongoing UCL Covid-19 Social Study is funded by the Nuffield Foundation with additional support from Wellcome and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

It is the UK’s largest study into how adults are feeling about the lockdown, Government advice and overall wellbeing and mental health with over 70,000 participants who have been followed across the last 56 weeks.

Researchers say happiness and life satisfaction have been increasing among respondents since the end of January this year and levels are now similar to last summer, the highest point since the study began.

All demographic groups have reported increasing levels of happiness and life satisfaction since the easing of restrictions for the latest lockdown.

Cheryl Lloyd, education programme head at the Nuffield Foundation, said: “As Covid-19 restrictions begin to ease across the UK and the vaccine rollout continues, people are reporting higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction.

“However, this is by no means a universal experience, with some groups more likely to report higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms, including young adults, women, those on lower incomes, people from ethnic minority groups and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

“The psychological impacts of the pandemic will continue beyond lockdown, so it is crucial that effective mental health support is available and accessible to those who need it.”

Matt Lambert, chief executive of the Portman Group – the social responsibility body and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK, said: “This study is at odds with the overwhelming body of research conducted into drinking behaviours during the pandemic.

“The Portman Group’s own research, as well as our analysis of 32 studies since March 2020, showed repeatedly that the majority have drunk the same as they did pre-pandemic, with many choosing to drink less.

“Our research also showed that, for those drinking more, around half were still consuming within the CMO lower-risk guidelines of 14 units.

“Interestingly the study does underscore that 40% of those drinking at higher levels have cut their consumption. However we should acknowledge that a small contingent of overall drinkers are consuming at the highest harm level.

“It is necessary to focus support on them with targeted measures to ensure those drinking at harmful levels get the support they need.”