Brits Smoked, Drank Less but Got Fatter During the Great Recession

The Great Recession—the period of steep economic decline that lasted from about late 2007 to 2013—left many people worldwide in tumultuous situations. And we now know that at least in England, citizens likely relied more on stiff upper lips than on stiff drinks to get through this time, according to a new paper published in December in Social Science & Medicine.

The study was based on more than a decade of data from a national survey completed by more than 9,000 households in England. The survey asked about things like health conditions, medications taken and some of the food choices people were making.

According to the survey responses, a percentage of the population turned away from alcohol and cigarettes. The proportion of the population who did not drink increased from 32 percent to 36 percent. And the proportion of people who smoked a lot decreased from 29 to 23.5 percent. 

There’s an obvious explanation, which is noted in the paper: People had less money to spend on drinks and nicotine. Logically, that would mean people also had less money to spend on other things, like healthier food—and that appears to be the case. 

People were more likely to be diabetic and eat slightly less fruit after 2008, when the recession began. The data also reveal an increase in a nationwide struggle with weight. The percentage of people who were obese, based on their body mass index, was about 23.5 percent after 2008, 2 percentage points higher than in years before.

And although the number of drinkers may have decreased, the number of heavy drinkers increased after 2008.

People were also diagnosed with mental illnesses, including anxiety or depression, more often during the recession. That result is in keeping with previous studies that found the recession took a toll on people’s psychological well-being. Nearly 5,000 more people than expected died by suicide between 2007 and 2010, according to a paper published in The Lancet.

Few of us would choose to remember the economic downturn that left so many people bereft of their pensions, savings and home values. But the authors note one crucial reason to tread this ground again: There’s no way this will be the last time the global economy gets blown to pieces.

“Our findings have a number of important policy considerations,” Mireia Jofre-Bonet, an economist at City, University of London and one of the authors of the study, stated in a press release. (Jofre-Bonet and her co-author, Victoria Serra-Sastre, did not respond by deadline to an interview request.)

These policies may need to specifically address populations that were most hard-hit by health effects: Women and people who had completed fewer years of education. “[It] is clear that this population need to receive information on health behaviors and risk factors to avoid the negative consequences and also the potential future impacts," Jofre-Bonet said.

And, now that the recession is officially over, everyone might need a little more information and support to continue walking away from the cigarettes and the booze—the healthier choices they were once forced to make.

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