‘Troubling trend’: Ohioans appear to be smoking more amid pandemic stress

Ohio is raking in more tobacco taxes than the state projected, a troubling sign that Ohioans are smoking and using other tobacco products more during the pandemic.

Cigarette excise tax revenue was $16.1 million (21.8%) above what the state had anticipated for September and $23.5 million (13.6%) above estimate for the first quarter of the state fiscal year.

The Ohio Office of Budget and Management said in its monthly budget report that the "substantial overage is likely related to heightened consumption during the continuing pandemic.”

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People experiencing stress or trauma have higher smoking rates, making the apparent rise unsurprising to health experts.

“It’s a very troubling trend because Ohio already has very high rates of tobacco use and it’s a major cause of our poor health outcomes in Ohio,” said Amy Bush Stevens, vice president of Health Policy Institute of Ohio.

Smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable deaths. About 20.5% of adults smoked cigarettes in Ohio in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, placing the state as the 11th highest smoking rate in the country.

Jackie LaBrand, from Dayton, takes a smoke break on Brown Street on Monday afternoon October 19, 2020.
Jackie LaBrand, from Dayton, takes a smoke break on Brown Street on Monday afternoon October 19, 2020.

Credit: JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER/STAFF

The coronavirus pandemic is a higher risk time for smokers. Smoking impairs lung function, making it harder for the body to fight off coronaviruses and other respiratory diseases. The CDC states being a current or former cigarette smoker increases risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Yet times of stress can be difficult times for people to quit, such as during the pandemic.

“I suspected that smoking would go up during this, because more people are at home and they’re probably more stressed, especially if they’ve lost a job,” said Kristianna Williams, health educator at Greene County Public Health.

Williams said many kids are also spending more time at home, which could make it easier to vape or smoke.

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One of the key resources available to Ohioans is a quit line at 1-800-784-8669, where people can get free support and free quit aids such as nicotine patches, she said. The Greene County health department also has a list of providers who can help with tobacco cessation, a program tailored toward pregnant women, and information about its offerings on its website.

Tobacco use can lead to a wide array of health problems, from cancer to heart disease to infant mortality, which Bush Stevens said are all big challenges in the state.

When talking about cessation, Bush Stevens also noted significant disparities exist in smoking rates and that it’s important to have high intensity services that go deeper than a pamphlet to help people most in need of cessation help.

“Back in the ’50s and ’60s, smoking was an equal opportunity killer," she said. "But now we are seeing these really big gaps. People with lower incomes, lower education levels and people with mental illnesses and disabilities are more likely to be smoking and those are groups that might also need extra help to quit.”

The good news is that decades of research has shown what’s most effective, Bush Stevens said. Publicizing the quit line more, doing more to integrate tobacco cessation with other health care that’s happening and mass media campaigns could help. She said there’s research showing the higher the price, the lower the consumption, so higher excise taxes could help.

Given how hard it is to quit, prevention measures such as media campaigns that focus on youth and more efforts to restrict youth access can also help, she said. She noted that Ohio recently raised the purchase age to 21.

How to get help quitting tobacco

The Ohio Tobacco Quit Line at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) provides personal quit coaching and telephone counseling free of charge to all Ohioans, regardless of insurance status or income. Quit aids such as nicotine patches, gum or lozenges are provided for up to eight weeks at no charge to eligible participants.

Smokefree.gov has tips for building a quit plan, for building quitting skills before trying to quit, texting programs for support, healthy coping skills and more.

Public Health – Dayton & Montgomery County’s Tobacco Cessation Program follows the adaptation of the 8-week LIFT (Living Independent From Tobacco) Program. Each week will focus on a different topic aimed to help the participant make behavior changes and be successful with their quit. People can join telephonically or virtually. A free 30-day supply of nicotine replacement therapy (nicotine patches, gum, or lozenges) will be provided upon request. People can register online here.

Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services has partnered with Truth Initiative are offering a digital program, the EX program, which includes a personalized quit plan with interactive exercises; live chat coaching with experts; the longest-running and largest community of current and former tobacco users; text messaging tailored to the participant; and quit medication delivered to the participant’s home. To register for the program, visit www.becomeanex.org/signup/MCADAMHS.