Cigarette sales surged during COVID-19 pandemic, study shows

David Heitz

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Cigarette sales during the COVID-19 pandemic spiked significantly, a new study shows.

The researchers analyzed data from March 2020 to June 2021. The data were compared to a similar time span pre-COVID-19. The findings appear in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Using per capita prediction models, the results showed that per smoker, an extra one-third of a pack was consumed. Individual consumption was not measured directly, however. The authors said another limitation of the study is that it did not include state-by-state data on tobacco sales.

“It represents 14.1 percent higher cigarette sales compared with what was expected to be sold had the pre–COVID-19 pandemic trend persisted,” the authors concluded. “Excess sales of cigarettes reported in this study align with findings from Nielsen retail tobacco sales data of increases in tobacco sales from April to June 2020. However, this study shows that increases in cigarette sales went beyond the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic and persisted in the 16 months after its onset in March 2020.

“This finding is also consistent with anecdotal claims by the tobacco industry about halting the long-term decline in cigarette sales during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Studies conflict on smoking and COVID-19 risk

The increase is alarming given the debate over whether smoking predicts poor COVID-19 outcomes. Some studies have shown that smokers aren’t well represented among hospitalized people with COVID-19. This had led some to argue that smoking may have a protective effect. That theory has been debunked by more recent studies that showing smoking leads to poorer COVID-19 outcomes.

“To conclude, what is unchallengeable is that cigarette smoke is detrimental for the lungs in several ways, and further studies are needed to clarify the reasons behind the reported low prevalence of current smokers among hospitalized patients with COVID-19,” according to the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. “The effect of current smoking on SARS-CoV-2 infection is a delicate and complex topic that should be addressed meticulously before delivering messages that could be misinterpreted.”

Sharing vape pens increases COVID-19 risk

A study published in Journal of the American Medical Association showed a relationship between cumulative cigarette smoking and COVID-19 risks. The study looked at more than 7,000 patients.

“The findings showed a dose-response association between pack-years and adverse COVID-19 outcomes,” according to the results. “Patients who smoked more than 30 pack-years had a 2.25 times higher odds of hospitalization, and these heavy smokers were 1.89 times more likely to die following a COVID-19 diagnosis when compared with never smokers.”

According to the world-renown Mayo Clinic, the habit of sharing vape pens also can contribute to COVID-19 susceptibility. "Smoking, vaping, hand-to-mouth social behavior, probably not distanced, unmasked, and exhaling and inhaling deeply, creating an aerosol of droplets — those are all the ways that we know it gets spread. And, so, it's very likely that people who are engaging in those behaviors are more likely to get the infection and spread it to others," says Dr. J. Taylor Hays, a Mayo Clinic doctor who specializes in nicotine addiction.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

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