Smoking makes it more likely for a person to develop severe COVID-19 symptoms, require hospitalization or die, which may have resulted in a steep decrease in smoking among the Danish population during the pandemic, according to research from UC San Diego released Tuesday.
The study, under UCSD's Rady School of Management and two Danish universities, found cigarette sales among regular smokers declined between 20% and 30% and people quitting smoking increased by around 10% from March 2020 to January 2021 in Denmark.
Additionally, regular smokers not only purchased cigarettes less frequently, they also cut down on the quantity.
"The pandemic led to reductions in physical activity, increases in stress and declines in mental well-being, all factors commonly associated with triggering higher tobacco use; however, we find evidence of sustained decreases in smoking, which could be a bright spot in the pandemic," said Sally Sadoff, corresponding author of the study and associate professor of economics and strategy at the Rady School. "The health risks associated with COVID-19 and smoking may help some smokers overcome a key barrier to quitting -- that the enjoyment of smoking is felt in the present and health costs are usually felt in the future."
The paper, published Tuesday in the journal Communications Medicine, also found declines in smoking were sustained for at least the first year of the pandemic and quitting rates lasted at least six months. The authors said these findings suggest COVID-19 may lead to a persistent decline in smoking.
In Denmark, about 17% of the population smokes while around 12.5% of Americans are smokers.
"Though we cannot make an apples-to-apples comparison to the U.S. due to data limitations, we suspect there was a decline in smoking in this country and others during the same time period," Sadoff said.
The data in the study were made available through Spenderlog, an app that allows users to track their spending on groceries. Sadoff and co-authors analyzed the grocery purchasing data of 4,042 Danish residents who use the app. The sample was largely representative of the Danish population in terms of age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and education level, the study's authors said.
The researchers found weekly cigarette purchase rates declined by 24% and average quantities declined by 12% between March 2020 and the end of that year. However, the study also indicated that social smoking had a slight increase during this same time.
"Contrary to some assumptions, social distancing was not (the) reason there was a drop in smoking because our data reveals that regular smokers, those more likely to smoke alone and those at the highest health risk from smoking, had the strongest reaction to the threat of COVID-19," Sadoff said.
"If the decline in smoking we document persists, not only could it help decrease the risks from COVID-19 as new variants emerge, but also have meaningful, longer-term benefits on population health and life expectancy beyond the pandemic," she continued.