While sales have gone up, the research does not directly show whether there is an increase in people smoking cigarettes.
Cigarette sales in the United States were higher than expected during the first 16 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a study published in Annals of Internal Medicine found.
The cigarette sales between March 2020 and June 2021 were 14.1% (95% CI, 9.7%-18.5%) higher compared with what was expected based on pre-pandemic trends, indicating a monthly excess sale of 0.34 pack (95% CI, 0.25-0.44 pack) per capita.
“Excess sales of cigarettes reported in this study align with findings from Nielsen retail tobacco sales data of increases in tobacco sales from April to June 2020,” the study authors noted. “This finding is also consistent with anecdotal claims by the tobacco industry about halting the long-term decline in cigarette sales during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Some of the largest differences were in September and December 2020, but researchers are not yet sure why. They also said, due to lack of data on state and individual levels, it is unclear whether more people are smoking, current smokers are smoking more, or if former smokers began smoking again.
"The study provides indirect evidence of increased smoking," lead study author Samuel Asare, PhD, a principal scientist at the American Cancer Society, told UPI. "We don't directly show whether there was increased smoking. We know that there is a strong correlation between sales and consumption."
He also cited a March 2021 report from The North American Quitline Consortium, which stated there was a 27% decrease in calls to the smoking quitline in 2020 compared with 2019.
Cigarette sales were compared with expected sales using an interrupted time series model, which predicted the expected sales of cigarettes during the pandemic based on the long-term downward trend of sales between January 2007 and February 2020. Calculations were adjusted for seasonality with higher sales in summer and lower sales in winter.
“The evidence of excess sales was valid even after we analyzed cigarette sales with a 1-month lag from the month when cigarette supply was released from manufacturers to allow for the transit of cigarettes from the factory gate to the point of retail sales,” the authors said. This indicated a monthly excess sale of 0.17 pack (95% CI, 0.06-0.28 pack) and an increase of 9.0% (95% CI, 1.3%-16.8%)
The authors hope future research can discover the exact factors leading to the increase in cigarette sales and what this means after the pandemic.
Asara S, Majmundar A, Islami F, et al. Changes in cigarette sales in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ann Intern Med. Published online October 19, 2021. doi:10.7326/M21-3350