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The Tobacco Epidemic Within the Pandemic

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What You Need to Know

  • About 30% of tobacco users smoked MORE after hearing about COVID-19.
  • Smoking and vaping increase the odds young adults will get severe COVID-19.
  • Helping smokers quit before age 40 can increase their life expectancy by about a decade.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on many societal and health-related issues, including tobacco use. With stress levels reaching record highs, individuals are finding unhealthy ways to cope, including returning to smoking or smoking more.

Research shows that 30% of tobacco users smoked more after learning about COVID-19, while cigarette sales rebounded in 2020 after years of steep declines. These signals make it clear that tobacco use has been influenced by COVID-19, and that evidence-based smoking cessation programs are more important than ever to help consumers of all ages get quit and stay quit.

Stress from the pandemic is exacerbating an already deadly epidemic. Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, and smokers are also at increased risk from COVID-19. A University of California-San Francisco study found smokers are nearly two times more likely to develop a severe case of COVID-19, especially in older populations. A report from the World Health Organization similarly concluded that smoking directly impacts the severity of disease and death in hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Young people are also hit hard. Recent studies show dramatic increases in rates of vaping among teens, threatening to roll back decades of progress in public health. A study published by the Journal of Adolescent Health found that smoking or vaping among young adults was the single strongest risk factor for being medically vulnerable to severe COVID-19 in this generally low-risk age group.

We know tobacco use is an addiction. As much as individuals want to quit smoking for good, CDC data show that out of 55% who attempt to quit each year, only 7.5% are successful. Many smokers attempting to quit do not use recommended tools like counseling or medications that can substantially increase the likelihood of a long-term quit. Given that it can take about 30 attempts before someone is able to quit tobacco for good, encouraging more quit attempts with more evidence-based support on each attempt is a key public health strategy for curbing tobacco use.

There is help. Smokers who use evidence-based tobacco cessation programs are quitting at higher success rates compared to unsupported quitting methods, like attempting cold turkey. In particular, robust behavioral counseling interventions as part of tobacco cessation programs are a proven strategy to deliver better success rates among smokers trying to quit, especially when combined with pharmacotherapies like nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) or varencline. Participants in the highest performing cessation programs — including a new wave of digitally delivered programs — have a track record of success with baseline quit rates that are five to eight times higher than those seen in unsupported quit attempts. Encouraging quit attempts early and often is particularly important in reducing harm from smoking. If cessation is achieved by the time a person reaches 40, life expectancy can increase by nearly a decade.

Cost savings is also an important component of cessation programs. A report from the American Lung Association found that programs that help people quit smoking are critical cost-saving solutions for state governments and consumers. The CDC reports that smoking-related illness costs the United States more than $300 billion each year, with $170 billion used for medical care for adults. For individuals, quitting smoking can lead to thousands of dollars a year in savings; and businesses that help employees quit successfully can benefit from productivity gains and reduction in direct medical spend that may accrue when an employee quits.

Tobacco consumption is an ongoing deadly epidemic, and this pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. The time is now to respond to the negative impacts of COVID-19 on smoking by increasing support for tobacco users. With the help of evidence-based cessation programs from healthcare companies that genuinely provide best-in-class results, we can support the millions of Americans still struggling with nicotine addiction to get quit for good.


Byron Crowe (Photo: Solera)Byron Crowe, MD, is associate medical director at Solera Health.

 

 

 

(Credit: Adobe Stock)