Are we smoking more amid the pandemic?

Business reports suggest that declines in cigarette sales haven't been quite as big this year.

Monika Warzecha 3 minute read November 25, 2020
Pandemic smoking

Some parts of the world are seeing an increase in smoking as people deal with COVID-19 anxiety and boredom. U.S. Library of Congress

Pandemic stress is breathing new life into bad habits including that extra glass of wine after dinner, eating more junk food and, according to recent Big Tobacco business reports, smoking.

Though cigarette smoking rates have plummeted over the past few decades — about half of Canadians smoked in 1965, compared to about 15 per cent in 2017 — there are some signs that COVID-19 anxiety and lockdown boredom may be rekindling the urge to reach for a pack.

Reuters reports that recently, “tobacco companies Philip Morris International Inc, Japan Tobacco Inc (JT), Imperial Brands Plc and Altria Group Inc., all raised sales or profit targets, saying the industry had done better than expected, mostly in the United States and Europe.” Changes in smoking habits seem to be vary according to geography. In Brazil, a survey pointed to a third of smokers lighting up more frequently in the spring, while in the U.K., other surveys indicate greater efforts to quit amid a pandemic involving a respiratory virus.

Both Reuters and Vox report that though tobacco sales in the U.S. have been declining by several per cent each year for some time. However, this year, it appears that the decline hasn’t been quite as pronounced. Last year, cigarette sales in the U.S. dropped by about seven per cent, according to Vox. Before COVID-19 hit the U.S., 2020 was expected to see a decline of about four to six per cent. In the summer, Altria Group, a parent company to a number of tobacco brands such as Marlboro, suggested that decline would only be about two to three per cent this year. In other words, cigarette smoking is still ticking downward, but not as much as in non-pandemic years.

As for Canada, Statistics Canada has been polling Canadians about how they’re handling these unprecedented times. Among questions about alcohol consumption, junk food and TV watching, the agency also has asked about tobacco products. According to surveys conducted in March and again in May, the proportion of Canadians who increased their use of tobacco products because of the COVID-19 pandemic fell somewhere between about three and five per cent.

While that’s not an enormous amount, the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer lists a number of ways that the bad habit can be even worse for you now: “Smokers are more vulnerable to certain infections due to weakened structural and immunologic defense mechanisms in the respiratory tract; Smokers are likely to be at a higher risk of adverse outcomes associated with COVID-19, which affects the respiratory tract; Smoking may increase the possibility of transmitting the virus from hand to mouth.”

Alberta Health Services suggests the pandemic is a good time to butt out. “Quitting smoking or vaping can improve your lung and heart health. These health benefits happen almost right away … This may feel like a very stressful time to try to quit smoking. But research shows that quitting smoking can also improve your mental health.”

For those trying to give up on cigarettes, Health Canada links to a number of different resources to help.

Monika Warzecha is the homepage editor of

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