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Yet another damaging health effect of COVID: Cigarettes are making a comeback

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer smokers are looking to quit, according to data released Friday by the University of California, San Francisco.

Yet another damaging health effect of COVID: Cigarettes are making a comeback
[Photo: Wolfgang Rottmann/Unsplash]
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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer smokers are looking to quit, according to data released Friday by the University of California, San Francisco’s Smoking Cessation Leadership Center.

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The number of calls to state “quitlines,” better known as 1-800-QUIT-NOW around the country, dropped 27% to around 520,000 in 2020, compared to the previous year. The decrease of 190,000-plus calls brings the number to its lowest point since 2007 and mirrors the rise of the pandemic—down 6% in the first quarter, 39% in the second, 30% in the third, and 21% in the fourth.

Linda Bailey, president and CEO of North American Quitline, also cited U.S. Treasury statistics, saying that after cigarette sales dropped 4%-5% every year since 2015, they’re now up 1%.

“Stress and anxiety that resulted from the pandemic may be factors driving up the use of tobacco,” she explains, adding, “If people continue working at home, home is a place where if you want to smoke, you can smoke.”

In addition to the many life pressures wrought by the pandemic—job loss, more hands-on parenting, concerns over getting vaccinated—some of the opportunities to remind smokers to change their ways have disappeared. State and local health departments’ messaging has pivoted to preaching about COVID-19 safety measures; and routine medical visits, when doctors often recommend quitting smoking to patients, have been put on hold for many months.

Meanwhile, many unemployed people may have lost their health insurance, which sometimes covers smoking cessation products and programs.

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“Quitting has never been more important,” says the American Lung Association’s Anne DiGiulio. “COVID and [the response to it] created new barriers.”

Old habits . . .

Recidivism among former smokers is a constantly moving target. They may have overcome their addiction but are now lighting up again—for many of the reasons why those who never gave up the habit aren’t stopping now.

“Under stress, people return to old patterns,” Daniel Seidman, author of Smoke-Free in 30 Days: The Pain-Free, Permanent Way to Quit, tells Fast Company. “People have quit over time and they tend to forget they were addicted, so they tell themselves a story: ‘I’ll just have one.’ ”

That this is happening during a deadly global pandemic isn’t surprising. The smoking rate rose after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and again during the Great Recession (though it eventually dropped again after each cataclysmic event), Seidman points out.

“Some people have done fine during this period, but life is full of stress and this has been a game-changer and has caused a lot of dislocation for people,” he says. “When people are suffering or under stress, their priorities change. ‘I don’t care if I’m smoking. I’m so unhappy,’ but then they get stuck with it. They’re in denial of the fact that you’re either in or out. There’s no middle ground with addiction.”

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Shelby Hepner began smoking when she was 16 years old and then quit several times over the next 13 years, most recently in August 2019. But she started up again last spring, when the pandemic hit the United States, citing being stuck at home alone and the boredom that came along with that as catalysts. And though her job has remained intact—no cut in salary or hours—the 29-year-old Nashville education manager fears what every new month or quarter will bring and worries whether her savings would be able to tide her over, if needed.

The half-marathons and triathlons Hepner had been training for were canceled, and without those as goals she had little to keep her motivated to work out, eat right, and abstain from cigarettes. She now reaches for her American Spirits and lights up on the back deck of her house or in her car. She’s up to three-quarters of a pack a day.

“I definitely don’t want to smoke forever,” Hepner says. “In a pandemic, a lot of things went downhill. Ideally, by the end of this year, I’d quit smoking again.”