Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns on Young American Smokers

There have been a number of headlines about various vices on the rise as people are finding ways to cope while isolating. Some think this could cause a spike in alcoholism, but what about smoking? At first, it might seem obvious that the increased stress of this time would cause smokers to light up even more frequently, but this question is complicated by the massive changes the tobacco industry has undergone in the last decade with the introduction of e-cigarettes and vaping.

Standing next to someone smoking a cigarette is an unpleasant experience, at least for us non-smokers. However, it’s different with e-cigarettes. While vaping looks dumb (at least in my opinion), there’s no stinky cloud of smoke produced and the health impacts of secondhand vapor are not yet known. The social stigma which has prompted some to give up smoking cigarettes is not affecting those who vape as much.

While some the products were initially created to give smokers a less-harmful alternative to cigarettes, there are still some health consequences. The industry has come under fire in recent years for the sharp increase in the number of teenagers using their devices, and Juul - the industry-dominator - is being sued for marketing to to that age group. Companies are getting teenagers hooked on the nicotine - which some don’t even realize is present in the product - and many become addicted, long-term customers. There is also research which says teenagers who vape are four times as likely as their peers to become cigarette smokers. Most people who don’t become smokers before the age of 20 will never become smokers, so the critical age for smoking prevention is when a lot of people are now taking up vaping.

Juul flavors available in November 2018

In a chapter from his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell examines the reasons people begin smoking and then go from casual smokers to regular smokers. He says one of the most important factors is the very first experience someone has with tobacco products and how positive that experience is. This can partly explain the addictiveness of Juul pods in particular. Their market dominance is in part due to the higher concentrations of nicotine in their products compared to other e-cigarettes. The "head high" you get from a Juul pod is more like that of a real cigarette and they created technology to make the inhalation smoother than other brands. Combine this with a fun flavor like mango and you get a fantastic product experience and millions of people whose first experiences with tobacco are positive.

While the rates of teen smoking have been steadily declining over the past two decades, e-cigarettes have become a trend among teenagers over the last five or so years. There are a number of reasons for this. While smoking habits can be difficult to hide from a parent - they can smell the tobacco or discover a hidden carton of cigarettes - vaping is much easier to conceal both at home and at school. This is especially so with the Juul e-cigarette that looks similar to a flash drive. Social media is an unsurprising contributor to this trend. Advertising on those platforms is far less regulated, with Instagram only banning vaping-promoting ad content last December. Teenage experimentation with these products is made more interesting with a vast array of flavors - though we’ve recently seen those scaled back by the government. Additionally, the freedom which many students gain when they go off to college leads some to experiment with vaping or to ramp up habits they’d already formed. Finally, mental health problems, which are very common among Gen Z, also contribute to a person’s likelihood to become a smoker and can play a role in their ability to give up the habit.

With all this information in mind, I predict that the lockdowns and isolation resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak will help combat the teen smoking epidemic but will not reduce the number of smokers in their 20s.

Firstly, this is due to recent laws enacted regarding tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. As of December 20th, 2019, the sale of tobacco products in the U.S. is restricted to those 21 and up. Before we had a chance to observe how this would impact teen smoking habits, the pandemic hit and we began staying home. Before December, underage smokers relied on lax tobacco venders and older friends who could buy them their Juul pods. Now, these same underage smokers are separated from their older friends and have fewer opportunities to sneak around to a convenience store. Their supply has been cut-off. Sort of. E-cigarette companies are relaxing their age-verification requirements for online orders to facilitate contactless delivery. The people who do actually bother to check your ID are sometimes six feet away and will not easily spot a fake.

With students at home taking online classes, the social situations which would facilitate experimentation with tobacco are not taking place. Your friend can’t offer you a puff on her Juul pod through FaceTime. The power of social influence on smoking habits has long been observed, but these social interactions have been cut off and will hopefully reduce the numbers of first-time experimenters.

While the lockdowns have increased mental health concerns and therefore stress-relieving behaviors, some smokers see this as an opportunity to quit. The fears of a virus which attacks the respiratory system has inspired people to finally stop smoking, or to at least change their habits. This is where the original intent of e-cigarette products is actually coming in handy for people looking to reduce their risks. The desire to quit is present in young vapers too: one survey of vapers from ages 15 through 24 showed that "57 percent were worried that vaping put them at risk of serious illness from the coronavirus, and slightly more than half wanted to quit." One difficulty in anti-smoking campaigns is that stating the health risks doesn’t do much to prevent smoking because the consequences are decades away. With COVID-19 popping up, smokers feel the risks much more acutely.

While states are currently reopening, it is widely accepted that we will have a second wave of the virus come the fall, meaning we will likely return to lockdowns and isolation. This period of reopening is happening during the summer, when students will mostly be away from the peers who would be introducing them to tobacco products. Anti-smoking organizations should use this time to prepare more effective campaigns for when life goes back to normal.