Number Crunch

The Pandemic Reignited America’s Tobacco Addiction

Working from home allows for infinite smoke breaks

0%: That’s the change in U.S. cigarette sales in 2020 — the first time in years the number has held steady rather than falling, according to the Wall Street Journal. In 2019, for instance, sales fell 5.5%; in 2018 they were down 4.5%, and so on. Figures differ, but by one estimate that downward trend has gone on for 40 years, and from 2005 to 2019, the percentage of Americans who smoke fell from 21% to 14%. So flat sales in 2020 represent, in effect, a surprising turnaround for the category: Tobacco giant Altria reported fourth-quarter sales of $6.3 billion, up from $6 billion the prior year.

While the decline in vaping is probably a factor in the resurgence in cigarette sales, anecdotal evidence suggests the pandemic is the real culprit. Working from home allows for infinite smoke breaks, one smoker told the Journal. Other smokers, in a related New York Times story, described lighting up more, or for the first time in a while, out of boredom or stress. One Wall Street analyst who follows tobacco suggested the trend is “driven mostly by the fact that people have less things to spend money on right now.”

Diminished lung capacity is obviously not great for anyone who contracts a respiratory disease like Covid-19, so cigarettes are a pretty bad stress-relief option. And there’s a very good reason smoking has been on the decline for so long: According to the Centers for Disease Control, it’s responsible for 480,000 deaths annually in the U.S. alone — comparable to the number the pandemic has killed, but every year. So let’s hope vaccination efforts reduce stress, boredom, and cigarette-break frequency as soon as possible.

Instead of smoking, consider other bad habits to take up during the pandemic, like day trading.

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