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Pandemic stress stops smokers giving up as 2020 is the first year in a decade that sales didn’t fall

Pandemic-related stress has stopped smokers giving up the habit, with 2020 being the first year in a decade that cigarette sales were flat and not falling. 

Data released Thursday by tobacco giant Altria Group revealed that unit sales of cigarettes remained steady from 2019 to 2020, bucking the downward trend of the last 10 years as people smoked more heavily during lockdown and ditched vapes to return to cigarettes.    

The findings suggest concerns that smoking puts people at higher risk of being seriously ill from COVID-19 has not deterred the population from turning to old habits. 

Instead, Altria said people had turned to smoking more in lockdown because they had more free time at home, drank more alcohol and had more available cash as they spent less on the likes of gas, travel and entertainment. 

An FDA spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal the stress the pandemic has caused to people across the nation – from the health concerns to job losses and the mental toll of lockdowns – could also be a factor on fewer people quitting smoking.

‘COVID-19 has created a drastic change in daily life, including increased stress and anxiety, that may contribute to a smaller-than-expected reduction in cigarette sales,’ she said.   

This comes as some states are bumping smokers to the front of the line to get the COVID-19 vaccine ahead of other groups in the population. 

Pandemic-related stress has stopped smokers giving up the habit, with 2020 being the first year in a decade that cigarette sales were flat and not falling

Volume cigarette sales remained unchanged between 2019 and 2020, as two million Americans quit vaping, Altria data shows.  

Smoking has been in decline for years, with industry sales down 5.5 percent in 2019 alone as smokers quit or switched to e-cigarettes.

The rate of decline accelerated over the last five years, falling 2.5 percent in 2016, 4 percent in 2017 and 4.5 percent in 2018. 

This came after a slower rate of decline in 2015, down by just .5 percent.

This came at a time when a fall in gas prices left consumers with more discretionary spending and people who had made the move to vapes returned to cigarettes, reported the Wall Street Journal.

But Altria recorded that cigarette sales were even stronger in 2020 than they were that year. 

The steady cigarette smoking habits of 2020 coincided with a decline in vaping, the Marlboro maker found.

A total of 9.8 million people aged 21 and over vaped in the US in 2020, down from 2019 when the number of vapers increased to 11.8 million.

This came after the CDC warned smokers near the end of 2019 not to use e-cigarettes while it investigated a lung illness.

Data released Thursday by tobacco giant Altria Group revealed that unit sales of cigarettes remained steady from 2019 to 2020

Data released Thursday by tobacco giant Altria Group revealed that unit sales of cigarettes remained steady from 2019 to 2020

The illness was later connected to certain marijuana vaping products but the concerns are thought to have already damaged sales.  

At its peak in 2014, 13.5 million Americans were vaping before this dipped to a low of 8.2 million in 2016.

Vaping then increased in popularity again in 2017 when the brand Juul hit the market sending sales up by one million in a single year.  

The decline in vaping in 2020 came as the legal tobacco purchase age was raised to 21 and some flavored vape cartridges were taken off the market.

The move was made to deter young people being drawn to the sweet flavors of vapes but it also appears to have sent some people back to conventional cigarettes.    

The steady cigarette smoking habits of 2020 coincided with a decline in vaping, the Marlboro maker found

The steady cigarette smoking habits of 2020 coincided with a decline in vaping, the Marlboro maker found

One smoker told the Journal he smokes more during the pandemic as he works on his laptop on his patio.

‘I can’t take 10 breaks a day’ at the office, he said, adding that home ‘I can have a cigarette whenever I want.’ 

He said he had switched to e-cigarettes in 2018 but then returned to cigarettes in late 2019 because vaping was ‘more uncharted territory’.  

‘Trust the devil you know,’ said Bisher Kunbargi. 

‘I keep smoking, it’s going to give me cancer. Whereas vaping is much more uncharted territory.’ 

Altria said in its earnings conference call Thursday that ongoing uncertainty meant it was not making a prediction for the industry’s 2021 sales. 

It said it expects the industry to be influenced by adult smoker stay-at-home practices, unemployment rates and the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.  

The strong trend for smoking during the pandemic comes despite the CDC warning that being a current or former smoker increases a person’s risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

The agency’s issued guidance urging people to quit smoking, pointing Americans to helplines, counseling services and Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs to increase their chance of quitting.

Despite the warning, there has not been any widespread study done on how smokers are worse affected by COVID. 

In fact, early research indicated that smokers were not adversely affected by COVID – a result that left scientists baffled.  

Meanwhile some states have made the controversial decision to allow smokers to get to the front of the line for the COVID-19 vaccine due to the heightened risk the habit poses. 

Pennsylvania and New Jersey both announced in January that they would start vaccinating smokers as a priority group. 

In Pennsylvania, smokers became eligible to receive the doses last week after the Pennsylvania Department of Health added those with ‘high-risk medical conditions’ to the first phase of the vaccine rollout. 

Smoking is among the conditions deemed to be high risk alongside cancer, chronic kidney disease, Down Syndrome, heart conditions, obesity and pregnancy. 

Under the changes, smokers are now eligible to receive the vaccine ahead of first responders, correctional officers, teachers, grocery store workers and public transit workers.  

This came one week after New Jersey announced it was giving smokers access to the vaccine before the general public. 

From mid-January smokers of all ages were eligible to get the vaccine along with people over the age of 65, and people who have underlying health conditions.

There are roughly two million smokers in New Jersey.  

It is not yet clear how they prove whether or not someone is a smoker when they show up to get the vaccine.  


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