Number of Adult Cigarette Smokers Increased During COVID, Survey Finds

Tobacco use and the percentage of adult cigarette smokers increased in several parts of the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, reversing a 20-year trend which saw smoking decline by 16 percent since 1999.

The latest in a series of personal health surveys was released Tuesday by the nonprofit group Interact for Health in coordination with the University of Cincinnati Institute for Policy Research. The survey peered into people's habits and behavior during the pandemic and found that tobacco use in the Cincinnati area actually increased after more than two decades of smoking's decline. Officials told the Cincinnati Enquirer Tuesday "the COVID-19 pandemic stalled progress" which had seen the percentage of regional smoker adults drop from 35 percent to 19 percent by 2018.

About one-quarter of current smokers said they smoked more frequently during the pandemic and 10 percent of people who had quit, restarted some form of tobacco use.

Interact for Health survey coordinators noted the percentage of adult smokers in the Cincinnati area had remained stable through 2020, but a large percentage of former smokers picked cigarettes back up since the start of the pandemic.

One-in-10 smokers who had previously quit relapsed back into smoking, telling the survey authors they chose to light back up since March 2020, when the coronavirus broke out across the country.

About 480,000 Americans die each year from tobacco-related illnesses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, which makes its use the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the U.S. Numerous British studies conducted over the past year found smokers were more likely to suffer more severe variants of respiratory ailments from SARS-COV-2, which produces COVID-19.

Nationwide, smoking rates fell from 42 percent in 1965 to 25 percent in 1997, CDC data and American Cancer Association research shows. And that percentage of adult U.S. smokers fell five more percent to 14 percent by 2019. Healthline reported in March U.S. quitlines for smokers fell by 27 percent last year from 2019. Additionally, cigarette sales for the first 10 months of 2020 rose slightly by 1 percent, reversing between 4- and 5-percentile drops every year since 2015.

Several recently released studies in Europe revealed data which shows the "tobacco industry capitalized on the pandemic to promote nicotine" for the first time in decades.

"The U.S. Surgeon General has conclusively linked smoking to the suppression of the immune system," said Anne DiGiulio, national director for lung policy at the American Lung Association, in March 2021. "And according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking increases the risk of illness from the virus that causes COVID-19. In light of this, quitting has never been more important."

The Cincinnati region study was conducted between Oct. 7 and Nov. 17, 2020, among a random sample of 879 adults in the area. The survey included an "oversample" of Black residents.

Newsweek reached out to the Greater Cincinnati COVID-19 Health Issues Survey coordinators on Tuesday afternoon for any additional remarks or context.

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This photo illustration shows a man smoking a cigarette in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 12, 2019. EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images