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New Trend or Passing Fad?
Smoking Rates will Drop with COVID Pandemic

This blog is the FOURTH in a series regarding the ‘unintentional consequences’ of the COVID-19 pandemic. As our lives have been abruptly altered due to social distancing requirements – both at home and in the workplace – unplanned ‘disruption’ of previous normal activities could permanently replace sacred elements once believed to be unyielding to any change. But COVID-19 just may have dictated new approaches to how we live and work.

In late April, over one month into the COVID-19 pandemic, a piece from Kaiser Health News (KHN) was published discussing how the virus may prompt some smokers to quit their habit, primarily to avoid respiratory risks. Past research has shown that smoking makes it more difficult to fight off respiratory infections. Because of this, one can reasonably assume that smoking will increase health complications, if infected by the virus. It was, therefore, a natural topic to cover how the pandemic may favorably shape smoking habits in the U.S.

Since publication of the KHN article, however, the science between smoking and COVID-19 is not as clear as one might think. Please read on…

Smoking and COVID-19

One early study about COVID-19 health factors suggests that smokers are 14 times more likely to need intensive treatment compared with nonsmokers. Such findings push doctors to use this connection between COVID and smoking, as yet another reason for people to quit this habit.

Yet, using the coronavirus as a valid reason to quit smoking, could possibly backfire. New research from UCLA’s psychology department shows that stigmatizing smokers may actually INCREASE their urge to smoke. Known as a ‘stereotype threat,’ people become anxious about being identified in a negative way and, consequently, end up confirming the behaviors they are trying so hard to disprove.

As we learn more about the impact of this virus on humans, more studies will likely ensue on how smokers are impacted by newly-evolved viruses. Perhaps the development of a reliable and widely-available antibody test could reveal connections between smoking and the coronavirus.

Countervailing Study – Smokers are LESS likely to contract COVID-19

There is contradictory evidence that smoking may actually keep smokers from contracting COVID. French researchers believe that nicotine protects cells from coronavirus attacks. In fact, the Pasteur Institute found that four times fewer smokers contracted COVID than non-smokers.

In lieu of this finding, the French government banned online sales of nicotine replacements – nicotine gum and patches – and warned that pharmacies that dispense treatment for tobacco addiction must limit the amount issued per person. The concern is that “excessive consumption or misuse in the wake of media coverage” may push people to inappropriately consume nicotine replacements to combat COVID.

How true is the French finding? There is much skepticism. More information is needed to learn the truth about nicotine and COVID. For now, a helpful piece can be found in USA TODAY regarding the facts associated with nicotine and COVID.

Conclusion

Given the varied lifestyle behaviors of individuals, some smokers may decide to curtail the habit, while others will maintain the status-quo regardless of having conclusive evidence that their health is at greater risk by holding on to this habit.

As we have found in the past few months in our country, science can play an important role for those who embrace well-documented research, but it can also be discarded by others. In 2017, smoking rates in Iowa mimicked national rates – 17.1 percent of adults smoked. Smoking rates have decreased over the years, and whether the pandemic will accentuate this trend in the future is, at best, uncertain.

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