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Smokers Light Up More Cigarettes Following California COVID-19 Lockdown Order, Study Finds

May 27, 2021
A lit cigarette is seen in an undated image.
Researchers with the Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center found adult smokers reported smoking more cigarettes after California's COVID-19 stay-at-home order was put in place. Photo via Pixabay.

The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has been felt around the world. COVID-19's grip has affected people's mental health and sense of what was once normal, prompting them to turn to new and familiar behaviors to help cope.

According to a new study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, smokers reported smoking more cigarettes following the COVID-19 lockdown order in California. UC Merced's Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center (NCPC) researchers looked at the habits of adult smokers in an 11-county region in Central California both before and after the California COVID-19 lockdown order was implemented. A total of 1,510 adults were surveyed in early March 2020 and 1,061 in May 2020.

According to the report, as a group, adults who responded to the survey after the state-mandated stay-at-home order went into effect had higher cigarette consumption rates compared to cigarette users who were surveyed before the lockdown went into effect. They also found the opposite for e-cigarettes: Adults who responded to the survey post-lockdown had lower e-cigarette consumption rates compared with adults who responded to the survey before the stay-at-home order.

While the study did not ask smokers why their consumption patterns changed, researchers speculate that increased stress, other mental health issues and working from home were possible causes for the increase in cigarette use. Researchers on the project pointed out that when smokers stayed home during the lockdown, they were no longer covered by California smoke-free workplace laws, which prohibit smoking and vaping indoors. This is important because smoke-free laws, such as those prohibiting smoking in the workplace, may be an important tool that not only protect people from toxic secondhand smoke, but that also can prompt smokers to reduce the number of cigarettes they smoke, or quit altogether.

While the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to decline and state mandates are lifted, public health and health care professionals worry that stress and isolation during the pandemic may lead to, or worsen, addictive behaviors throughout countless communities, including in Central California.

"It is important to bolster mental health and smoking cessation resources in communities like the San Joaquin Valley, where there is already a pre-existing shortage of medical and mental health professionals," said lead-author Professor Mariaelena Gonzalez, whose research focuses on health disparities and tobacco control. "Without these resources, these areas could become marginalized due to COVID-19 related increases in stress, mental health issues and substance use disorders."

The pandemic has uprooted lives and increased stress and anxiety, but help is available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a list of mental health resources on its website to help anyone who may be going through a difficult time. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can be reached at 800- 273-8255. Smokers who would like help to quit smoking can contact the California Smokers' Helpline at 800-662-8887.

Visit the NCPC's website to learn more about the study and other research, and visit the Health Sciences Research Institute 's site to learn more about all the public health research at UC Merced.