COVID-19: According to research Nielsen increases tobacco addiction to cope with quarantine stress


COVID-19: According to research Nielsen increases tobacco addiction to cope with quarantine stress

The survey reveals that the pandemic is having an impact on the mental and physical health of smokers. Many react by smoking more.

In addition to the direct effects of the virus, the COVID-19 pandemic has created several difficulties due to the strict restrictions on social distancing. The mental and physical repercussions of these measures have proved particularly heavy for the millions of smokers who have increased their tobacco consumption to cope with stress.

A recent survey analyzes how these restrictions have affected the habits and health of 6,801 tobacco and nicotine consumers in 5 countries (United States, United Kingdom, Italy, South Africa and India). The research, commissioned by the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World and conducted by Nielsen, highlights how over two thirds of respondents use tobacco and nicotine as their primary means of coping with stress and anxiety. In addition, almost 40% of smokers increased the consumption of these products in the period under analysis (from 4 to 14 April).

Stress and anxiety cause increased tobacco consumption

As governments begin to loosen the provisions on social distancing, the effects of the isolation of the last period on citizens’ mental health are becoming evident. The answers of the interviewees clearly show that social distancing has had a negative impact on their daily life. This is the case for 35% of the interviewees in India, 29% in Italy, 24% in South Africa, 39% in the United Kingdom, up to 43% in the United States). Furthermore, the most widespread fears were found to be related to the possibility of getting sick, being hospitalized and managing stress and anxiety.

The percentages almost double if the respondents who tested positive for COVID-19 or who live with someone who has contracted the virus are analyzed. For them, restrictions have had a negative impact in many more cases: 75% in India; 56% in Italy, 45% in South Africa; in the United Kingdom 68%; in the United States 76%. In addition, the negative impact on mental health is generally more common among women than men.

“At the end of the pandemic, we will see important consequences for people’s mental and physical health,” says Dr. Derek Yach, President of the foundation. “Even before the COVID crisis, smokers had to deal with a high risk of developing lung cancer, chronic lung disease, as well as heart attacks. It will be like this even after. Let’s not forget that 7 million people around the world will die this year from the diseases generated by tobacco use. “

Bad habits to manage stress

Unfortunately, it is common to resort to unhealthy habits in times of high stress and this can be particularly dangerous for tobacco users. Many of the respondents cited nicotine and tobacco as recurring means of coping with stress even before the pandemic (United States, 69%; United Kingdom, 68%; Italy, 48%; South Africa, 66%; India, 58%). Consequently, many have maintained or increased the level of consumption of these products during this period of restrictions (United States, 57%; United Kingdom, 44%; Italy, 45%; South Africa, 64%; India, 74%). Higher consumption rates were more evident in countries where authorities imposed bans on the purchase of tobacco and alcohol (India and South Africa), which could suggest altered buying habits among respondents in those countries.

In fact, many combustible tobacco consumers have reported that they fear stores would run out of their usual products. This fear, combined with the anxiety of not being able to leave home, would have pushed cigarette smokers to stockpile in many cases (United States, 45%; United Kingdom, 38%; Italy, 33%; South Africa, 32% ; India, 50%).

Healthier alternatives for stress management

In addition to the consumption of tobacco and nicotine-based products, the survey reveals some much healthier new habits. With the closure of bars and restaurants, almost half of respondents in Italy and the United Kingdom reported reducing their alcohol intake. In all countries, approximately 45% of respondents reported that they normally resort to physical activity to deal with stress and anxiety. In India, where isolation precluded any outdoor activity, over half of the respondents tried still other strategies, resorting to breathing, meditation and yoga exercises.

A look into the future

The data show how the pandemic has affected the desire to quit smoking. Among the respondents, many smokers considered quitting smoking completely (Italy, 37%, South Africa, 51%; United Kingdom, 37%; United States, 41%). These percentages increase sharply in homes where someone has tested positive for the virus. However, if many have thought about quitting, far fewer have actually tried to do so (Italy, 18%; South Africa, 36%; United Kingdom, 21%; United States, 27%). A positive note comes from India, where 66% of smokers indicated that they had considered quitting and 63% followed this up with a concrete attempt. However, these results indicate that millions of people want to quit but have not found an effective strategy in quarantine times (India, ~ 2.6 million; Italy, ~ 2.4 million, South Africa, ~ 1.9 million; United Kingdom, ~ 2.3 million; United States, ~ 8.4 million). The obvious discrepancy between the intentions to quit and the actual attempts highlights the need for more effective options to be made available to smokers.

“The social limitations of this period provided insights into how we could help smokers quit,” adds Derek Yach. “We must empathetically encourage them to stop consuming combustible products by making known and encouraging the use of patches, chewing gum and electronic cigarettes that cause less harm than smoking, and to do this we must make sure that these products are available to everyone. By doing this, smokers could have much better future prospects for their health. “

The research was conducted online by Nielsen for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World between 4 and 14 April 2020. Respondents were residents of the United Kingdom, Italy, South Africa, India and the United States of America (New York and California), and are between 18 and 69 years old. They are regular smokers of combustible tobacco or nicotine-based electronic cigarettes.


The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World is an independent, non-profit 501 (c) (3) U.S. organization that aims to improve health globally by helping to quit smoking in this generation. The Foundation supports its mission through three fundamental pillars: Health, science and technology; the Agricultural Transformation Initiative and Industrial Transformation. The Foundation received contributions from Philip Morris International (PMI) in 2018 and 2019 for an annual amount of $ 80 million. PMI has committed to contribute $ 80 million annually for the next ten years. Pursuant to the Foundation’s internal regulations and pledge agreements, SMEs and the tobacco industry are generally not authorized to exercise control or influence on how the Foundation spends its funds or directs its activities. Acceptance of contributions by the Foundation does not constitute any form of endorsement of the debtor’s products. For more information on the Foundation, please visit


Nielsen’s research on the impact of lockdown on smoking habits in Italy

The context:

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced hundreds of millions of people around the world to stay in their homes, giving rise to a totally exceptional challenge for smokers and the people who live with them. In this regard, Nielsen research, commissioned by the Smoke-Free World Foundation, analyzed the behavior of tobacco and nicotine consumers to understand how they dealt with this crisis, considering the repercussions on both physical and mental health.

The survey was conducted in Italy, the United Kingdom, India, South Africa and the United States (New York and California), countries and regions that quickly imposed strict rules to keep the population at home and slow the spread of Covid-19. The respondents are smokers of traditional cigarettes or other products that involve the burning of tobacco and users of nicotine-based products such as electronic cigarettes.

Italy was the first country to be hit hard by Covid-19 after China. Patient 1 was hospitalized on 20 February. A week later the government decided to close all schools in the most affected areas, completely isolating the area of ​​the first outbreak, which became the “red zone”. In the first week of March the entire peninsula became a “red zone” with the consequent closure of all schools and shops, with the exception of those that sold basic necessities. The production plants of companies that manufacture goods for primary sectors, such as the pharmaceutical and agri-food sectors, have continued to remain open with all the necessary precautions. All this has caused severe stress and worry in the population, generated by several concomitant factors: economic difficulties, work reorganization, child management and fear of contracting the virus.

Interview method: Online

Sample size: 1500 men / women aged between 18 and 69.

Reference period: from 5 to 14 April 2020

The results:

Impact on mental health and remedies to deal with it

· In Italy, 29% of tobacco and nicotine smokers say that social distancing has had a very negative impact on mental health.

o Women are more affected than men (24%) with a percentage rising to 35%.

o The situation is also suffering the most from smokers and vapors accustomed to a more intense social life, like the younger ones, in the age group between 18 and 24 years (40%), and those who live in big cities ( 36%).

Tobacco and nicotine remain tools to combat stress

· About half of respondents in Italy (48%) normally use tobacco and nicotine-based products to cope with stress and anxiety – and 27% smoked more in the quarantine period.

Other activities used to combat stress are: physical exercises (45%) and DIY (36%). 13% use alcohol.

Fear of increased contagion risks related to smoking and vaping

About 1 in 4 (28%) of traditional cigarette smokers believe that smoking increases the risk of contracting Covid-19. In the age group between 18 and 24 years the percentage rises to 38%.

· Only 1 in 5 (19%) believe there is a greater risk of contagion linked to vaping.

Panic increase in purchases

· A third of traditional smokers (33%) and 38% of users of reduced risk products have purchased more than in the period prior to the lockdown for fear of the closure of the reference stores, the scarce availability of products and the difficulty of going out home.

Increased risk of secondhand smoke

· Before the lockdown, around two thirds (61%) of respondents using combustible tobacco did so at home. The percentage rose to 71% during the period of restrictions, with a consequent increase in the risk of exposure to secondhand smoke for those who live with smokers.

· The percentages are similar even considering the different age groups: 72% of respondents between 18 and 24 years old smoke at home. Among smokers over 65 years it reaches 73%.

Attempts to quit smoking because of COVID

37% of traditional smokers considered quitting smoking during lockdown. 18% actually tried to do it.

Younger smokers more virtuous. Among those aged between 18 and 24, 47% considered stopping smoking and 34% actually tried it.

· If we consider users of reduced risk products, 49% of them considered quitting and 37% actually tried.

“The results of the research show that cigarettes are still an essential remedy for smokers to combat stress, anxiety and fear generated by the covid-19 epidemic and the consequent lockdown. We hoped that many could try to quit smoking during the quarantine, but unfortunately this did not happen. I’m not surprised – says Riccardo Polosa, Founder and Director of CoEHAR, Research Center for Smoking Damage Reduction of the University of Catania – For a smoker it is difficult to block the compulsive need to smoke, especially when there is manage a situation of particular stress “.

“However, now that the restrictions are gradually loosening, it is time to redouble efforts to encourage those who smoke to get away from this unhealthy habit – continues Polosa – We know that the fatal dangers for smokers are linked to the toxic substances generated by the combustion of traditional cigarettes , not from nicotine, which on the contrary would even have a protective effect against the risk of contagion from Covid-19. The competent institutions of all countries should direct their efforts to help smokers who are unable to quit on their own by directing them towards the use of less harmful products such as patches, rubbers and electronic cigarettes, ensuring their availability for all “.

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