Pandemic pushed more Michiganders to smoke cigarettes: study

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than 34 million American adults are cigarette smokers. He also notes that more than 16 million people are living with a disease caused by smoking, such as lung cancer. In fact, smoking is responsible for one in five deaths each year and remains the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States.

The research found that as the world faced the mandatory shutdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic and changes to the way we live and work, many people turned to cigarettes. Witness the first increase in cigarette sales in 20 years, combined with a drastic drop in the number of people calling quit smoking helplines. Nationally, the total annual number of calls to 1-800-QUIT-NOW has dropped by an average of more than 86,000 since the start of the pandemic.

Since smoking increases the risk of lung cancer, heart disease, and other life-threatening diseases, it’s important to examine this current increase in cigarette consumption to better understand what’s behind it. We collected data from a variety of sources to analyze this trend and identify the states that are seeing the greatest change.

KEY FINDINGS INCLUDE:

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The 1-800-QUIT-NOW quit smoking helpline saw an average annual drop of 86,812 calls in 2020 and 2021.
Michigan has seen the largest decline in calls to smokers’ helplines, averaging 14,408 calls per year in 2020 and 2021. That’s more than four times the amount of any other state.
National cigarette sales saw their first increase in more than 20 years, rising 14.1% from projected totals during the pandemic.
Theories behind the rise in cigarette smoking include the mental health impact of lockdowns, a reduction in opportunities for regulated public smoking, and cigarette hoarding.
Missouri charges a cigarette tax rate of just $0.17 per pack of 20, a stark contrast to the $4.94 rate found in Washington, D.C.

States where smokers have stopped trying to quit

The number of adult smokers in the United States has steadily declined over several decades, in part due to the availability of smoking cessation programs, tobacco tax programs, and smoke-free air laws enacted throughout the country. In 1965, 42% of Americans were smokers – that number has now fallen to 14% of the population.

The 1-800-QUIT-NOW helpline acts as the national portal number that directs callers to their respective state’s smoking cessation helpline. It followed a significant drop in the number of calls passing through its system from the beginning of 2020, at the start of the pandemic. That year alone, the number of calls dropped by more than 190,000 from the previous year’s total.

Michigan smokers couldn’t quit

Michigan smokers seeking help to quit smoking declined from reports of 1-800-QUIT-NOW calls more than four times more than any other state in 2020 and 2021. The total number of calls has dropped by an average of 14,408 calls each of those years. For more context, note that Michigan is home to a much higher percentage of smokers (18.7%) than the national average (14%). By comparison, the remaining nine states rounding out the top 10 each averaged between 3,000 and 4,000 fewer callers.

Alabama (3,944), West Virginia (3,897), Ohio (3,838), Mississippi (3,837), Oklahoma (3,829), Pennsylvania (3,641), Indiana (3,351), Florida (3,121) and Arkansas (3,113). All other states saw an average drop of less than 3,000 calls.

US tobacco revenues have increased during the pandemic

A Federal Trade Commission report shows an increase in cigarette sales in 2020 – the first such increase in 20 years. Tobacco companies sold a total of $203.7 billion worth of cigarettes in the first year of the pandemic, nearly $1 billion more than in 2019.

The tobacco industry has anecdotally claimed that it has halted decades of declining cigarette sales during the pandemic. The researchers apparently supported this claim. They identified a 14.1% increase over their estimated cigarette sales projections since the start of the pandemic.

Reasons for the increase in the number of smokers

The theories behind the cause of the increase in cigarette sales and the corresponding declines in quit smoking helpline calls have yet to be proven. But experts seem to agree on some potential reasons.

Mental health stress of lockdown

The National Alliance on Mental Illness noted that mental health issues related to pandemic experiences may be contributing factors to increased tobacco, alcohol and other substance use. Stress, anxiety, and depression stemming from enforced isolation, frightening uncertainty, and a deviation from normal routines can propel some people into unhealthy coping mechanisms like smoking.

These same mental health issues are also thought to contribute to fewer calls to the helpline, as people may feel less pressure to seek help during emotionally overwhelming times. Traditionally, nearly half of callers tend to have behavioral health issues.

Absence of public barriers to smoking

With the majority of the U.S. workforce having to self-isolate and adjust to working from home, the pandemic created a situation where people weren’t faced with common smoke-free regulations in public spaces. The absence of both official non-smoking mandates and the potential negative public perception of smokers may have made it easier for some people to adopt the habit at home.

Purchases “Loading the Pantry”

As the pandemic began to escalate in the United States, stockpiling necessities such as toilet paper became big news. Some financial journalists also noted an increase in cigarette sales around this time. Tobacco maker Altria reported in April 2020 that its first-quarter sales jumped following what they called “pantry loading” of bulk purchases.

Risks of combining COVID-19 and cigarettes

Early in the evolution of the COVID-19 virus, smoking was identified as a risk factor that may increase the severity of symptoms due to reduced lung function and a weakened immune system.

When the vaccine rollout began, a few states listed smoking or a history of smoking as medical conditions that could qualify someone to receive a COVID-19 vaccination before others. This frustrated many who thought smoking was a personal choice, and not something that should raise a person’s vaccination priority. Such comments echo the blame often placed on smokers for developing lung cancer. Some people have responded to these comments by pointing out that nicotine is one of the most addictive substances on Earth.

The pandemic has also had a disproportionate impact on smoking disparities among minority populations. As Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of the Center for Black Health & Equity recently explained, “African Americans have more circumstances that make it harder to survive this COVID-19 pandemic – deep-rooted poverty, medical conditions and issues pre-existing conditions, less access to health care, less stable employment. COVID-19 did not cause these racial disparities… [but it is] exposing existing inequalities in our health care, education, traditional employment and social systems.

Report prepared and provided by the Mesothelioma Center on Asbestos.com, the nation’s most trusted mesothelioma resource. Their primary focus is advocacy, awareness and connecting people to the best mesothelioma resources, a community of top doctors, hospitals, experts and survivors to help guide patients and their families.

About Margaret Shaw

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