COVID stress, boredom led some people to smoke more

"Knowing the reasons for increased tobacco use and the motivations of those who successfully quit smoking can help us identify how to better address cessation efforts during the pandemic," Jessica Yingst says. (Credit: Irina Iriser/Unsplash)

Stress, more free time, and feeling bored may have contributed to an increase in daily cigarette use among some Pennsylvania smokers in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new survey shows.

Understanding risk factors and developing new strategies for smoking cessation and harm reduction may help public health officials address concerning trends in tobacco use that may have developed as a result of the pandemic, the researchers say.

Smokers who increased the number of cigarettes they smoked per day could be at greater risk of dependence and have a more difficult time quitting, says Jessica Yingst, assistant professor of public health sciences at Penn State and a researcher at the Penn State Cancer Institute.

As reported in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers asked 291 smokers about their tobacco use patterns before and during the early months of the pandemic including how frequently they used tobacco products, reasons why their use patterns changed, and whether they attempted to quit.

Nearly a third of smokers reporting increased use due to stress, increased free time, and boredom. One participant said, “Working at home allows me to smoke at will rather than being in a smoke-free environment for 8 hours per day.”

In contrast, 10% of participants decreased their tobacco use and attributed that to schedule changes, being around non-smokers such as children, and health reasons.

Nearly a quarter of survey participants reported attempting to quit smoking during the pandemic. A third of those who attempted to quit said that they did so to reduce their risk of poor outcomes should they become infected with COVID-19.

One participant said, “I quit as soon as I came down with a fever and cough. Clearly, I am aware of how detrimental smoking is to my health; however, I did not consider how it could make me more vulnerable to COVID-19 and its effects. I was terrified and quit immediately.”

Ultimately, seven people successfully quit all tobacco use.

The researchers also asked participants about their perceptions of health risks during the pandemic. More than two-thirds of participants believed their risk of contracting COVID-19 was the same as non-tobacco users. More than half of those surveyed thought they were at higher risk to suffer serious complications from COVID-19.

“Knowing the reasons for increased tobacco use and the motivations of those who successfully quit smoking can help us identify how to better address cessation efforts during the pandemic,” Yingst says. “New methods like telemedicine and increasing public health messaging could encourage people to stop smoking in the absence of public support groups or other in-person interventions.”

Jonathan Foulds of Penn State College of Medicine, who contributed to the research, has done paid consulting for pharmaceutical companies involved in producing smoking cessation medications, including GSK, Pfizer, Novartis, J&J, and Cypress Bioscience. Additional coauthors from Penn State have no disclosures to report related to this publication.

The National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences funded the work. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Penn State