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Cigarette sales are on the rise as people puff through the pandemic

October 27, 2021, 8:43 PM UTC

Holy smokes! Americans lit up more cigarettes in 2020 than the year before in the product category’s first sales increase in two decades.

Thankfully, however, it’s a small uptick after years of sharp declines. In a report released late Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission said that the number of cigarettes sold by wholesalers and retail chains had risen to 203.7 billion last year, from 202.9 billion in 2019, or a 0.4% increase.

While the FTC did not provide an explanation for the increase, tobacco companies themselves have ascribed some of the growth to people during the pandemic having more opportunity to steal a smoke.

“During the pandemic, we saw consumers add nicotine occasions to their day, which we believe was stay-at-home practices,” Altria Group CEO Billy Gifford told investors in July. What’s more, there were more “tobacco-use occasions” as individuals spent less on travel, gas and entertainment in 2020. And Altria’s finance chief said the company is seeing more of the same trends this year. There could also be an element of coping with stress and isolation caused by the pandemic: after all liquor sales shot up in 2020.

That’s not to say we are witnessing a large scale revival in smoking. The Centers for Disease Control estimated in 2019 that 14% of American adults, or roughly one in seven, were smokers, compared to 20% in 2005, and 43% in 1965. What’s more, cigarettes continue to find fewer and fewer points of sale. In 2014, CVS pharmacy stopped carrying the products, as did Costco Wholesale, Walmart and the majority of Sam’s Club stores later.

There could be more pressure on cigarette makers coming soon: Walgreens Boots Alliance CEO Roz Brewer recently hinted that the drugstore giant, with its 10,000 U.S. stores, might also ditch cigarettes, seven years after its main rival did. They do however remain widely available at convenience stores and dollar stores.

Long term, cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products remain imperiled. In April, the federal government said it would it would seek to ban all menthol cigarettes and flavored cigar products, something that could nonetheless take years to get enacted. But the threat is real to Big Tobacco: the FTC said that menthol flavored smokeless tobacco products comprised more than half of all sales revenues, 54.5%, while regular tobacco flavored products made up 43.4%., the first time it has provided this breakdown.

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