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COVID-19 did not increase tobacco smoking, Waterloo study finds

Study examined smoking and quitting trends in Canada, U.S., Australia and England
160721_LG_COVID smoking vaping trends

A new health study by the University of Waterloo discovered that unlike other stressful natural disasters, COVID-19 has not resulted in a net increase in smoking.

The study funded by Health Canada and other international agencies is from the university's International Tobacco Control (ITC) Project, the first-ever international cohort study of tobacco use. The overall objective is to measure the psycho-social and behavioural impact of key national level policies of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

The researchers also found that although nearly half of smokers reported that COVID-19 made them think about quitting, the vast majority of smokers did not change their smoking habits during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report said tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease and death worldwide and in Canada. In 2017 alone, tobacco use caused over 47,000 deaths in Canada.

The ITC study surveyed 6,870 smokers and vape users in four high-income countries — Australia, Canada, England, and the United States — during the first global wave of COVID-19 between April and June 2020. The team examined the association between COVID-19 and thoughts about quitting smoking, changes in smoking, and factors related to positive changes such as attempting to quit or reducing smoking.

Only 1.1 per cent of smokers in the four countries attempted to quit and 14.2 per cent reduced smoking, but this was offset by the 14.6 per cent who increased smoking, with 70.2 per cent reported no change.

The report quoted Geoffrey Fong, professor of psychology at Waterloo and principal investigator of the ITC Project.

“It is important to note that population-level stressful events, such as 9/11 and natural disasters, have often led to increased smoking,” said Fong. 

“So, our findings that there was no net increase in smoking in response to COVID-19 may actually represent a positive result for public health," he said. 

The report also said those who thought about quitting smoking because of COVID-19 were predominantly females, ethnic minorities, people with financial stress, current vapers, less dependent smokers, those with greater concern about personal susceptibility of infection, and those who believe COVID-19 is more severe for smokers. 

Other key findings in Canada, included that the majority of Canadian smokers (58 per cent) and vapers (52 per cent) reported that the coronavirus outbreak had no effect on their smoking and vaping behaviour. Few smokers (three per cent) and vape users (three per cent) reported quitting; and 21 per cent of smokers and 26 per cent of vapers reported using these products more, while 17 per cent of smokers and 19 per cent of vapers reported using them less.

With respect to those who had thoughts about quitting, the report said about half (48 per cent) of Canadian smokers reported thinking about quitting “somewhat/very much” due to the COVID-19 outbreak, while the vast majority of smokers reported concern for personal health (89 per cent) and the price of cigarettes (84 per cent) as more important reasons for thinking about quitting.

The study also revealed there is a belief that smoking / vaping increases the severity of COVID-19.

"A majority of Canadian smokers (60 per cent) believed that smoking makes COVID-19 “somewhat more/a lot more severe” for smokers vs non-smokers. Nearly half of Canadian smokers (47 per cent) believed that vaping makes COVID-19 “somewhat/a lot more

severe” for vapers vs non-vapers, with a lower percentage of vapers (42 per cent) reporting this belief."

A Public Health Ontario snapshot of smoking rates across Ontario showed that five of the top ten public health regions for smokers in Ontario, were in Northern Ontario. The most recent snapshot was done in 2015-2016.

This included Public Health Sudbury and Districts (20.7 per cent), Porcupine Health Unit (21.1 per cent), Northwestern Health Unit (21.8 per cent), Timiskaming Health Unit (25.8 per cent) and the highest in Ontario, Algoma Public Health (26.2 per cent).

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at He covers health care in Northern Ontario.


Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

About the Author: Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at covering health care in northeastern Ontario and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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