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Those trying to quit smoking during the COVID-19 pandemic actually smoked more, study finds

Experts say the stress of the pandemic may have affected consumers’ smoking habits

Woman with COVID-19 mask smoking cigarette
Photo (c) Dusan Ilic - Getty Images
Recent studies have shown how consumers’ harmful drinking habits have escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now a new study conducted by researchers from Florida Atlantic University has explored how it has affected smoking habits.

According to the findings, many people who were trying to quit smoking during the COVID-19 pandemic actually ended up smoking more. 

“These data may aid health care providers to identify and provide counsel to cigarette smokers at greater risk for tobacco consumption during current and future stresses such as the COVID-19 pandemic,” said researcher Dr. Charles H. Hennekens. “All of these efforts have the potential to reduce many premature deaths from cigarette smoking, which remain alarmingly and unnecessarily high in the U.S. and are increasing worldwide.” 

Stress may increase smoking

For the study, the researchers analyzed survey responses from 150 people who were enrolled in a tobacco cessation and lung cancer screening program. The group answered questions about changes in their tobacco use, the impact the pandemic had on them, their exposure to COVID-19, and the protective measures they were taking. 

The researchers learned that while former smokers didn’t return to the habit during the COVID-19 pandemic, many smokers who were trying to quit were unable to do so. Of the current smokers involved in the study, over 28% increased their tobacco use between June 2020, and October 2020; that compares to just over 17% of respondents who decreased their tobacco use. Nearly 55% reported no change in their tobacco use throughout the pandemic. 

The team pinpointed stress as one of the biggest factors that influenced consumers’ smoking habits during the pandemic. Many of the mental health stressors associated with the pandemic -- including feeling hopeless and fearful about securing groceries and other necessities, uncertainty about the future, boredom because of the disruption to daily life, and anger with the changes to daily routines -- were all found to contribute to the participants’ tobacco use. 

The researchers also learned that there was a link between smoking habits and COVID-19 safety measures. The study showed that those who smoked less were more likely to be more cautious about health and safety during the pandemic. 

Because of the significant long-term health risks associated with smoking, the researchers hope more work is done to help smokers get the right kind of therapy and guidance moving forward. 

“Smoking cessation therapy also should include long-term counseling and at least 90 days of a prescription drug, in particular, varenicline, whose mechanisms include blocking the pleasurable sensations of nicotine on the brain,” said Dr. Hennekens. 

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