The American Lung Association recently warned that smoking is a risk factor for the most severe symptoms of COVID-19. But in a case of unfortunate irony, it appears many people during the pandemic are backsliding into their old puffing habits, or maybe even starting new ones. While cigarette sales had for decades been declining at a fairly steady rate—reaching 5.5% in 2019, per the Wall Street Journal—our first year of dealing with the coronavirus saw a slowdown of that trend. According to stats released Thursday by Altria Group, owner of the Marlboro brand, cigarette sales in 2020 were simply flat compared with those from 2019—i.e., there was no drop. “COVID-19 has created a drastic change in daily life, including increased stress and anxiety,” that may be spurring people to scoop up smokes, an FDA spokeswoman tells the Journal.
Altria notes more people may have been tempted to smoke not only from the stressors of our new normal, but also from situational circumstances, like being stuck at home more or having extra cash to spend that would usually be put toward gas, entertainment, or vacations. “I can’t take 10 breaks a day” at the office, a Texas software developer says, but “I can have a cigarette whenever I want” working at home. E-cigarette users also started shying away from vaping, and heading back to regular cigarettes in some cases, after people in 2019 started reporting lung problems after using e-cigarettes. Even though experts say e-cigarettes are still safer overall than smoking—and that outbreak was tied to vitamin E oil in pot vaping products—sales never came back. Meanwhile, even those who don’t light up have reason for concern if they get the virus: USA Today gives a “true” rating to a recent claim that “COVID-19 can cause worse lung damage than heavy smoking.” (Read more smoking stories.)