Pandemic Stress and Boredom Linked to Increase Cigarette Use

Summary: Stress, boredom, and more free time may account for the rise in cigarette consumption in smokers during the COVID pandemic.

Source: Penn State

Stress, increased free time and feelings of boredom may have contributed to an increase in the number of cigarettes smoked per day during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic by nearly a third of surveyed Pennsylvania smokers.

Penn State College of Medicine researchers said understanding risk factors and developing new strategies for smoking cessation and harm reduction may help public health officials address concerning trends in tobacco use that may have developed as a result of the pandemic.

Jessica Yingst, assistant professor of public health sciences and Penn State Cancer Institute researcher, said smokers who increased the number of cigarettes they smoked per day could be at greater risk of dependence and have a more difficult time quitting.

Researchers asked 291 smokers about their tobacco use patterns before and during the early months of the pandemic including how frequently they used tobacco products, reasons why their use patterns changed and whether they attempted to quit. Nearly a third of smokers reporting increased use due to stress, increased free time and boredom.

One participant stated, “Working at home allows me to smoke at will rather than being in a smoke-free environment for 8 hours per day.” In contrast, 10% of participants decreased their tobacco use and attributed that to schedule changes, being around non-smokers such as children, and health reasons.

Nearly a quarter of participants reported attempting to quit smoking during the pandemic. A third of those who attempted to quit conveyed that they did so to reduce their risk of poor outcomes should they become infected with COVID-19. One participant stated, “I quit as soon as I came down with a fever and cough. Clearly, I am aware of how detrimental smoking is to my health; however, I did not consider how it could make me more vulnerable to COVID-19 and its effects. I was terrified and quit immediately.” Ultimately, seven people were successful in quitting all tobacco use.

The research team also asked the participants about their perceptions of health risks during the pandemic. More than two-thirds of participants believed their risk of contracting COVID-19 was the same as non-tobacco users. However, more than half of those surveyed thought they were at higher risk to suffer serious complications from COVID-19.

The results were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

This shows white smoke against a black background
Nearly a third of smokers reporting increased use due to stress, increased free time and boredom. Image is in the public domain

“Knowing the reasons for increased tobacco use and the motivations of those who successfully quit smoking can help us identify how to better address cessation efforts during the pandemic,” Yingst said. “New methods like telemedicine and increasing public health messaging could encourage people to stop smoking in the absence of public support groups or other in-person interventions.”

This study was conducted by the Penn State Center for Research on Tobacco and Health. Tobacco users interested in participating in future research can call 844-207-6392 or visit the center’s website to learn more about current studies and find out if they are eligible to participate.

Nicolle Krebs, Candace Bordner, Andrea Hobkirk, Sophia Allen and Jonathan Foulds of Penn State College of Medicine also contributed to this research. Foulds has done paid consulting for pharmaceutical companies involved in producing smoking cessation medications, including GSK, Pfizer, Novartis, J&J and Cypress Bioscience. The other authors have no disclosures to report related to this publication.

Funding: This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences through Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute (UL1 TR002014). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

About this psychology research news

Source: Penn State
Contact: Barbara Schindo – Penn State
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Tobacco Use Changes and Perceived Health Risks among Current Tobacco Users during the COVID-19 Pandemic” by Jessica M. Yingst et al. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health


Tobacco Use Changes and Perceived Health Risks among Current Tobacco Users during the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 has become a global pandemic, with over 81 million cases worldwide. To assess changes in tobacco use as a result of the pandemic, we surveyed a convenience sample of current tobacco users between April and June 2020.

The sample was taken from a tobacco user research registry (n = 3396) from the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania, USA. Participants who responded to the survey and were eligible for this study (n = 291) were 25.6% male, 93% white, and had a mean age of 47.3 (SD = 11.6) years. There were no reports of participants testing positive for COVID-19, but 21.7% reported experiencing symptoms associated with the virus.

Most participants (67%) believed that their risk of contracting COVID-19 was the same as non-tobacco users, but 57.7% believed that their risk of serious complications, if infected, was greater compared to non-tobacco users. A total of 28% reported increasing their cigarette use during the pandemic.

The most common reasons for increased use were increased stress, more time at home, and boredom while quarantined. Nearly 15% reported decreasing their tobacco use. The most common reasons for reduced use were health concerns and more time around non-smokers (including children). A total of 71 (24.5%) users reported making a quit attempt.

Characterizing these pandemic-related changes in tobacco use may be important to understanding the full scope of subsequent health outcomes resulting from the pandemic. Tobacco cessation resources should be tailored to allow for safe, appropriate access for those interested in quitting. 

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