Smokers light up more during the pandemic

Lots of people seem to be smoking again or more during the pandemic.
Lots of people seem to be smoking again or more during the pandemic.PHOTO: AFP

(NYTIMES) - Ms Maria Neuman blames Netflix. "Last night, I blistered through seven cigarettes because I was watching a movie," said Ms Neuman, 51, a freelance writer who lives in the Silver Lake neighbourhood of Los Angeles. "It's bad enough that I started smoking again during a pandemic. Now, I'm smoking inside."

Milo Martin, a poet in Los Angeles, offered fewer excuses. "Being quarantined is a great opportunity to sit around and smoke," Martin, 57, said. "It's an existential exercise to tangibly see yourself breathing."

Caroline Ryder, 40, a ghostwriter of memoirs and screenwriter, said: "I never identified as a smoker until last year. But a zombie force took over my body last October and I went to a liquor store and said, 'I need a pack of menthol Capris right now.'"

Lots of people seem to be smoking again or more during the pandemic, if anecdotal evidence and preliminary sales figures for tobacco products in the United States are any measure.

"Quality surveys operate at a lag," said Dr Vaughan W. Rees, director of the Centre for Global Tobacco Control at Harvard University, referring to reliable smoking studies from institutions like the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "But we are seeing interesting blips. The decline in tobacco sales has slowed in the past 10 months."

While tobacco sales in the US have generally fallen in recent decades (14 per cent of Americans smoked in 2019, compared with nearly 21 per cent in 2005, according to an annual report from the CDC that tracks smoking rates), the decline flattened last year.

"The total volume of cigarettes sold in the US typically declines by 3 or 4 per cent," said Mr Adam Spielman, a managing director at multinational investment bank Citi who follows the tobacco industry. "But last year, volume was flat and that's a significant change, driven mostly by the fact that people have less things to spend money on right now."

Smokers interviewed for this article also cited stress as a reason for lighting up. And if there is one feeling that captures people's collective emotional state since the onset of the coronavirus - not to mention the political upheavals during and after the recent election - it is stress.

"I've had a few people in my practice who have relapsed and they blame Covid," said Dr Benjamin A. Toll, director of the Health Tobacco Treatment Programme at the Medical University of South Carolina. "Part of me feels like this is the excuse of the hour."

Mr Matt Lundquist, a psychotherapist and founder of Tribeca Therapy in Manhattan, said: "When things are scary, people revert to that which is comforting and familiar, like going out to buy a pack of cigarettes."

He noted that the panic was especially pronounced in the early days of the pandemic. "There was absolute fear in New York," he said. "People began drinking more and reverted to less healthy eating habits."

While there is no evidence that smokers are more susceptible to the coronavirus, public health experts warn that the compromised lung capacity of a smoker may intensify the progression of the virus.

Ms Neuman will take her chances, though she would like to cut back from her five Camel Lights a day. "I don't think I ever will quit smoking," she said. "But I want to go back to just one on a Sunday in my garden."