Changes in tobacco use and related personal and environmental factors amid the COVID-19 pandemic can be captured by qualitative studies, but they are few in non-Western populations. We assessed the perceived links between tobacco use and COVID-19, and changes in the use of cigarettes, electronic cigarettes (ECs) and heated tobacco products (HTPs) in the early phase of the pandemic in Hong Kong, where lockdown was not implemented.
Semi-structured telephone interviews were conducted from January to June 2021 in 95 participants (36 EC users, 28 HTP users, 32 exclusive cigarette users). Transcriptions were coded using deductive and inductive approaches, and factors for changes were nested in the social-ecological model.
Two-thirds of participants perceived their infection susceptibility was the same as never tobacco users, and 44.2% perceived more severe COVID-19 disease if infected. Amid the pandemic, tobacco use decreased overall but increased indoors for all three products. Increased tobacco use was mostly attributed to increased emotional distress, while decreases were attributed to various personal (health concerns) and environmental factors (e.g. COVID-19 regulations). Perceived convenience and lower costs were reasons for increased EC use. Limited access to HTPs was compensated by cigarette use.
Many participants were unaware of the potential harm of tobacco use on COVID-19. Overall tobacco use decreased due to COVID-19 regulations, which may not be sustainable post-pandemic. Indoor consumption increased, supporting a comprehensive smoke-free policy that covers private indoor areas. Better cessation services targeting EC, HTP and cigarette use are needed.
Smokers need better awareness of the risk of tobacco use on COVID-19. Smoking cessation services can be improved by offering brief advice, strengthening advocacy against secondhand smoke, and covering EC and HTP use, highlighting their potential harms to users and others, and their risk of addiction and relapse to cigarette use.