Yet in a report released Friday, the nonprofit North American Quitline Consortium (NAQC) found a steep drop in calls during 2020 to the National Cancer Institute-operated portal that connects callers to local quitlines. At the same time, the nonprofit noted, cigarette sales increased after years of steady decline, according to data from the Treasury Department.
“Quitting smoking is one of the most difficult things a person can do, and it’s hard to quit when everything is going well in life,” Linda Bailey, president and CEO of the NAQC told The Washington Post in an interview. “The stress and anxiety created by the pandemic really caused people not to be able to think about quitting. They were worried about the pandemic. They were worried about other things and just not able and not motivated to quit.”
Last year, calls to the national portal linking people to quitlines in all 50 states, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam decreased by 27 percent compared to 2019, which translates to a drop of roughly 190,000 calls — the lowest call volume seen since 2007, according to data compiled by the NAQC. In recent years, annual call numbers have ranged from 700,000 to 900,000, the report said. (The report did not include figures from other sources that offer help, such as the American Lung Association and individual health-care providers.)
Meanwhile, cigarette consumption rates also reflected an “alarming trend,” the report stated, citing federal data from the Treasury Department. Although sales of cigarettes had been decreasing by 4 to 5 percent annually since 2015, there was a slight increase of 1 percent in the first 10 months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
“The decrease in calls to the quitline last year is a disturbing development,” Anne DiGiulio, national director of lung health policy at the American Lung Association, said during the news conference. “We are working with our partners to help understand and reverse this trend.”
Also during the news conference, Bailey noted that the consortium annually analyzes data on the use of quitlines without issuing reports. But the changes were so “dramatic” this year, she said, that the group decided to publish a report.
“We really were surprised by how dramatic the data was,” Bailey told The Post. “It shows that the pandemic definitely had a big influence on whether or not people were able to quit smoking last year.”
Not only was there an overall decrease in call volume in 2020, but the report also noted that the decline appeared to mimic the timeline of the pandemic. The largest drop, 39 percent, occurred in the three-month period from April to June during the height of lockdowns and when infections and deaths were skyrocketing. Furthermore, rates of anxiety and depression were also on the rise at the time, with a third of Americans showing signs of the pandemic’s psychological toll.
Anecdotally, quitline counselors have reported that smokers who called during the pandemic seemed to need much more emotional support and were less sure they would be able to quit than callers before the pandemic, Bailey said. Quitlines, she said, also received calls from former smokers who were feeling anxious they would relapse.
“The pandemic took the big basket of anxieties, depression and addiction that we have in the U.S., and, for smokers, it put that basket on steroids,” Catherine Saucedo, deputy director of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at the University of California at San Francisco, said in a news release from NAQC.
Saucedo, Bailey and other experts emphasized at Friday’s news conference that people should try not to let their attempts to quit smoking cigarettes be derailed by the pandemic. Cigarette smoking continues to be the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S., accounting for more than 480,000 deaths each year, according to the CDC. And experts said they are particularly concerned about the risk covid-19 poses to smokers and former smokers.
The chance of becoming severely sick with covid-19 was the “motivating factor” for Katie Rodgers, a longtime smoker, to take the rare step of quitting during the pandemic.
“I don’t want to die alone in a hospital,” said Rodgers, who spoke at the news conference.
Smoking commercial tobacco products is particularly prevalent among more vulnerable groups, including people who are low income, communities of color and those with mental or behavioral health conditions, experts said. These populations often have less access to health care or resources to help them quit, and many also have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s physical and psychological impacts.
“We know that quitting smoking is the best thing you can do for your health,” DiGiulio said, “and now more so than ever.”
As vaccines continue to roll out and the country begins transitioning out of pandemic life, Bailey told The Post she is hopeful that more attention and resources can be directed toward public health campaigns and efforts to curb smoking.
“We just want to return to that steady progress that we’ve been making and to see 2020 as something that was unusual, but that we corrected in 2021,” she said. “By decreasing the harm caused by tobacco, we can have a really important impact on the health of Americans.”