Aim: While accumulating evidence suggests that people modified their smoking during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it remains unclear whether those most at risk for tobacco-related health disparities did so. The current study examined changes in smoking among several vulnerable smoker populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Methods: A web-based survey was distributed in 2020 to 709 adults with socioeconomic disadvantage, affective disorders, or opioid use disorder who participated in a previous study investigating the effects of very low nicotine content (VLNC) cigarettes on smoking. Current smoking status and rate, and adoption of protective health behaviors in response to the pandemic (e.g., social distancing, mask wearing) were examined.
Results: Among 332 survey respondents (46.8% response rate), 84.6% were current smokers. Repeated measures ANOVA showed that current cigarettes/day (CPD) was higher during COVID than pre-COVID (12.9±1.0 vs 11.6±1.0; p<.001). Most respondents had adopted protective health behaviors to prevent infection (>79% for all behaviors). More than half indicated that they were still leaving their homes specifically to buy cigarettes (64.6%) and were buying more packs per visit to the store (54.5%) than pre-COVID. Individuals unemployed at the time of the survey experienced greater increases in CPD (from 11.4±1.4 to 13.3±1.4, p=.024) as did those with higher levels of anxiety (from 11.5±1.1 to 13.6±1.1, p<.001).
Conclusions: Smoking increased during the COVID-19 pandemic in this sample of adults from vulnerable populations, even while most adopted protective health measures to prevent infection. Unemployment and anxiety might identify those at greatest risk for increases in tobacco use.
Implications: Individuals from populations especially vulnerable to smoking might be at risk for greater harm from cigarette smoking during times of pandemic-related stress. Public health interventions are warranted to ameliorate increases in smoking among these populations. Special attention should be paid to those experiencing unemployment and high anxiety.
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