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In 2021, an average of 200 million fewer cigarettes per month were sold in Canada relative to 2019.

Smoking numbers drop during pandemic despite gaps in cessation efforts

Experts point to possibilities for new anti-smoking endeavours

By Jack Rabb , in City Health , on February 15, 2022

Canadians’ mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic and, consequently, substance abuse has risen across the board. However, there’s been one glaring exception: smoking.

Statistics Canada data for 2021 shows that monthly cigarette sales have evaporated to the tune of approximately 11.1 per cent compared to 2019, which is a reduction of nearly 200 million cigarettes per month. Over the course of the decade before the pandemic, sales only declined by a total of four per cent.

Despite this encouraging trend, there are still large gaps in the government’s anti-smoking efforts. Experts think they might be missing opportunities to reduce smoking even further.

Dr. Michael Chaiton, an epidemiologist as well as a tobacco-policy researcher with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said traumatic health events can encourage a smoker to quit and worries that this dynamic isn’t being properly exploited — something that is a common pattern.

“The key I think for where we really need smoking-cessation services is in particular sorts of places that might surprise you that it’s not happening. For instance, places where it’s really effective are like after a cardiovascular event, you know, heart surgery, people often get […] asked to quit before surgery, but then are not provided any help afterward.”

Even the threat of a traumatic health event is enough: assistance with quitting being offered alongside lung cancer screening is highly effective.

“That screening is in kind of the sweet spot of ‘It’s not too late to do something about it.’ You have that sense of like, ‘Okay, this is real. This is an event that is possible, and I’m putting myself at risk for it’ — it becomes more salient than sort of abstract health risks in the far future.”

Many smokers have had this same thought process in regards to the pandemic: they’re aware they’re at a heightened risk of suffering from COVID, and they still have an opportunity to quit now before it’s too late.

But despite evidence that suggests Canadians are historically receptive to reducing smoking in light of a lung-devouring pandemic, Health Canada doesn’t have a single reference to COVID on its webpage dedicated to providing anti-smoking resources.

Various health care agencies around Canada have published studies suggesting that quitting smoking will improve health outcomes in regards to COVID, but that information, intuitive as it may be, is not being widely broadcast.

Although Chaiton recognizes there are some practical barriers, he said that a solution may be integrating smoking cessation resources into the COVID testing framework: “Conceptually, it makes a lot of sense.”

“The more points of contact the better,” said Chaiton. “And the more automatic it is, the better. Certainly, especially for people who are hospitalized with COVID, that strikes as a really obvious place.”

The major advantage of rolling quitting resources into the COVID framework is how it accesses smokers who wouldn’t seek out treatment on their own.

“Because COVID testing and COVID results are such broad-based things, that’s also an important piece, reaching the [entire] population of smokers rather than the people who are already interested [in quitting], it’s helpful for dealing with the population issue of smoking.”

While it’s no certainty that these decreases in smoking will last once the pandemic has wound up, what is clear is that in the meantime, there’s still room for improvement.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated QuitNow did not provide COVID resources on its website when it in fact does.