Yes, People Are Smoking More

Some blame the pandemic for the stress and boredom that have led them to buy more cigarettes.

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 neighborhood 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,” Mr. 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 2020. 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 are any measure.

Chloe Pang for The New York Times
Chloe Pang for The New York Times

“Good quality surveys operate at a lag,” said Vaughan W. Rees, the director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at Harvard University, referring to reliable smoking studies from institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “But we are seeing interesting blips. The decline in tobacco sales has slowed in the past 10 months.”

While tobacco sales in the United States have generally fallen in recent decades (14 percent of Americans smoked in 2019, compared to nearly 21 percent in 2005, according to an annual report from the C.D.C. that tracks smoking rates), the decline flattened last year.

“The total volume of cigarettes sold in the U.S. typically declines by 3 or 4 percent,” said Adam Spielman, a managing director at Citi who follows the tobacco industry. “But in 2020, volume is 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’s one feeling that captures our collective emotional state since the onset of the coronavirus — not to mention the political upheavals during and after the recent election — it’s stress.

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

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.”

Mr. Lundquist 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, the Los Angeles freelance writer, will take her chances, though she would like to cut back from her current 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.”

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