Cigarette sales had a COVID comeback

Man smoking cigarette.
Man smoking cigarette. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/GettyImages

Old habits die hard (especially during a chaotic, life-changing pandemic).

Cigarette sales rose for the first time in 20 years last year, leading some to believe "pandemic-related stress spurred an uptick in smoking," writes The Washington Post, according to a report released by the Federal Trade Commission.

The largest U.S. cigarette producers sold "an estimated 203.7 billion cigarettes to wholesalers and retailers in 2020, representing an increase of about 800 million over 2019," per the Post. The Journal qualifies that 2019-to-2020 increase at 0.4 percent.

Altria Group, which makes Marlboro cigarettes, had previously attributed the increase to the pandemic, reports The Wall Street Journal. In a July 2020 earnings call, Altria Group CEO Billy Gifford told investors that "fewer social engagements allow for more tobacco-use occassions," per the Post.

The FTC data is "very troubling," Erika Sward, assistant vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association, told the Post. Like the Altria Group, she also attributed the increase in sales to the pandemic, considering the effect stress has on smokers past and present.

Tobacco executives believe stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits could have played into the rise, as well, as "lower-income smokers have been able to buy in bulk when they go to the store," writes the Post. And that's without mentioning the influence that bans on flavored vaping and increased e-cigarette taxes may have had on pushing smokers back toward traditional cigarettes, notes the Journal.

It is, however, unclear if the uptick was as a result of new smokers, relapses, or increased intake among existing smokers.

One analyst told the Post it is "too soon to tell whether the same trend continued into 2021."

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