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ASH Statement: The Coronavirus Catch-22 for the Tobacco Industry

COVID Updates


Statement from Action on Smoking and Health
The Coronavirus Catch-22 for the Tobacco Industry


Contact: Megan Arendt
(202) 659-4310

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 31, 2020 – As governments close non-essential businesses to maximize social distancing, they face the need to decide just what “essential” means. Tobacco should be a no-brainer; it is the opposite of essential. But a few countries, including France and New Zealand, have decided that tobacco needs to remain on sale. The United Kingdom has closed all stop-smoking clinics while still allowing tobacco sales. Others, such as India and South Africa (with some exceptions), have lumped tobacco in with the myriad other things we can temporarily do without.

The tobacco industry has been somewhat muted on this issue, other than to ensure their stockholders and customers that there is plenty of supply to meet demand. But they are in a no-win situation when it comes to weighing in on the essentiality of tobacco.

The biggest industry counterargument against policies addressing tobacco supply, rather than demand, is that their customers should be free to indulge in habits that may harm them. This necessitates that they downplay the addictive nature of their products. They often compare nicotine addiction to caffeine or chocolate cravings, ignoring the huge body of evidence showing that nicotine is at least as addictive as heroin or cocaine, and the fact that most smokers wish they could quit but can’t.

If the tobacco industry argues that their products should be considered essential during this global crisis, it is a tacit admission that their customers are truly hooked, and need access to tobacco to avert painful withdrawal symptoms. What other cogent argument is there? “Because we need to keep making money” is a non-starter, especially when the makers of other products are being hit hard.

But the industry dare not suggest that tobacco sales take a break for a few weeks, even though it would bring them very positive publicity. All those smokers who wish they could quit would do so by default, and many will not revert once they get past withdrawal. A sales hiatus of a few weeks or months would devastate the tobacco industry’s future revenues.

In the U.S., of course, tobacco-only stores are rare; tobacco is sold in almost every retail space that sells food[1], which is essential. So barring more specific state action, it is business as usual for tobacco. One doctors group in New York suggests changing that. The New York State Academy of Family Physicians has called on Governor Cuomo to issue an executive order banning the sale of tobacco products for the length of the state of emergency. If the governor agrees, it would be a game-changing chance to see what New York without tobacco sales might look like. We are very curious to see what happens in India, South Africa, and other countries who are already going down this path. What is essential at this time is not to ensure that citizens have access to tobacco products, but rather to ensure that citizens have access to resources that will help them be free from tobacco addiction. Given the mounting evidence linking smoking to COVID-19 complications this will help save lives.

If you or someone you know is trying to quit smoking, read our guest blog from cessation expert Dr. Harry Lando on how to quit in quarantine: https://ash.org/shelter-in-place-cessation. Or, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW or visit https://smokefree.gov for free cessation resources from the CDC.

[1] Shout out to CVS and Target, which do not sell tobacco


Founded in 1967, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) is America’s oldest anti-tobacco organization, dedicated to a world with ZERO tobacco deaths. Because tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death worldwide, ASH supports bold solutions proportionate to the magnitude of the problem. https://ash.org


UPDATE MARCH 31, 2020 at 3:31pm: Cessation services in the United Kingdom have apparently not been shut down in all localities, but where it is available support is largely done by telephone.