Why ‘the devil you know’ – smoking – appears to be making a comeback

Is negative publicity for e-cigarettes driving people back to smoking? It seems something is, at least in the US, where the Wall Street Journal reports that combustible cigarette sales bounced back last year, exceeding 2015 levels after decades of decline.

In an interesting and persuasive article, the paper says that following a 5.5% drop in 2019, the trend was reversed in 2020 by a combination of the pandemic and a crisis of trust in vaping.

It cites an explanation put forward by tobacco giant Altria that “people had more opportunities to smoke because they spent more time at home and had more money to spend on cigarettes because they spent less on gas, travel and entertainment”. To which one might perhaps add, for many, the possible effect of boredom.

“At the same time,” the report adds, “some e-cigarette users turned back to combustible cigarettes because of increased e-cigarette taxes, bans on flavored vaping products and confusion about the health effects of vaping”.


Deadly irony


A lot of that confusion came, of course, from the spate of negative publicity triggered by the 2019 outbreak all over the US of sometimes fatal lung illness. Although that so-dubbed EVALI was ultimately attributed to the use of vitamin E acetate in marijuana vapes, the association with vaping per se has hung around, severely tainting e-cigs’ reputation.

A Euromonitor survey early last year found 73% of US respondents believed vaping was at least as harmful as smoking, and that public perceptions of e-cig safety had worsened in every one of the 20 countries it surveyed.

This is despite the fact that more than 480,000 deaths in the US every year are attributed to smoking a fatality rate several orders of magnitude above any that can be associated with vaping even by the most pessimistic observers.

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    It is grimly ironic that cigarette use should rise driven, at least in part, by anti-vaping action and opinion during a pandemic when smoking, a deadly enough habit in itself, is also known to increase the risk of death for anyone who catches Covid-19.


    What’s logic got to do with it?


    Whether it’s current smoking, or conditions related to long-term smoking, which more seriously affect ones coronavirus survival chances is something of a moot point. Either way, logic says cigarette sales should have fallen further and faster, not “bounced back” during the pandemic. Sadly, public perceptions and behaviour have little to do with logic.

    It may be merely anecdotal evidence, but the confession of one 28-year-old smoker interviewed for the Wall Street Journal article is telling.

    Texan Bisher Kunbargi gave up Marlboros for e-cigarettes, but switched back in late 2019 and now, working from home, smokes more than ever.

    He said: “Trust the devil you know. I keep smoking, it’s going to give me cancer. Whereas vaping is much more uncharted territory.”

    The kind of reasoning that can only be responded to logically with a face-palm.


    Author default picture

    Aidan Semmens