Old habits: 40% of cigar smokers lighting up more since start of outbreak, despite COVID-19 fears

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Old habits die hard, even during a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. A survey of about 800 cigar smokers on how COVID-19 is influencing their smoking habits reveals some surprising results. Despite many respondents saying they intended to quit cigars due to coronavirus-related concerns, most actually say they’ve been smoking more since the pandemic began. The survey was led by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“We are not sure why many participants reported increasing their tobacco use, but it is possible that they are stressed or anxious, they are bored at home, they stockpiled tobacco products in advance of sheltering-in-place orders, or they are not able to easily access evidence-based cessation resources like pharmacotherapy or behavioral support,” says first study author Sarah Kowitt, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Family Medicine, in a release.

Lasting two full weeks, the online survey began on April 23rd. All of the respondents involved had smoked at least one cigar over the previous month, and most also indulged in other tobacco products as well. The majority of participants are white (66%), and just under half (48.9%) are women. The average participant age is 39 years old.

All in all, the number of respondents who report smoking cigars more often since the start of the outbreak (40.9%) more than doubles those who report cutting back (17.8%).

Stopping a cigar habit is easier said than done

Researchers also took note of three groups that generally reported stronger intentions to quit cigars, and consequently had better odds of making a legitimate attempt to cut back on their habit. These groups were: African Americans; people who took advantage of a “quitline” (telephone service that helps people quit tobacco); and those who were already at a greater risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms.

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Close to half (46.5%) of the survey’s participants say they at least gave quitting a shot since the pandemic began. Another 70.8% are planning on quitting within the next six months.

These stats in particular suggest, according to the study’s authors, that public health organizations and governments should make a push for more anti-smoking support groups and resources during the pandemic. It’s no secret that a simple desire to quit is often not enough when it comes to freeing oneself from tobacco dependency. More specifically, researchers suggest more widespread access to nicotine replacement therapy, virtual support from online counselors, and more robust mental health resources.

“It is important, especially during the pandemic, that we provide support for tobacco users who want to quit smoking,” Kowitt concludes. “A growing body of research suggests that tobacco users, compared to non-users, may be at greater risk for experiencing COVID-19 complications, so it is critical that we identify opportunities and approaches to encourage tobacco users to consider quitting and to provide them the support they need to quit successfully.”

The study is published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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