MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) – Preliminary data is painting a pessimistic picture about tobacco use during the pandemic.

A Federal Trade Commission report found that tobacco sales were up for the first time in two decades – bumping from 202.9 billion cigarettes sold in 2019, to 203.7 billion in 2020. The amount of money tobacco companies used to advertise increased from $7.62 billion to $7.84 billion. 

While tobacco use data isn’t yet available for 2020, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control anticipates that more people are leaning on nicotine as a coping mechanism since the start of the pandemic. 

Calls to the state’s quit line dropped 24% from pre-pandemic levels, according to Catherine Warner, the outreach coordinator for the DHEC Division of Tobacco Prevention and Control. 

“That is a concern because that means that fewer people are trying to quit, which is what we want,” Warner said. 

South Carolina ranks 18th in the nation for its rate of adults who smoke, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among teens, smoking remains common. About 23% of high school students have tried smoking, according to data from the state’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. About 13% of students had tried cigarettes between the ages of 13 to 16, and 4.1% had their first puff before they were 9 years old. Of those who answered, 7% had had a cigarette within the last month.

About 47.3% of students had used an electronic vapor product, and 22% had done so within a month of when they took the survey.

Warner said that racial unrest, grief, isolation and the cost of housing can cause fear, anxiety and stress, which can make people turn to tobacco. 

Quitting is especially crucial now, she said, because current and former smokers are at a high risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms. Nicotine weakens the immune system and can put stress on the heart. The highly addictive substance can also worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression.

In youth, it can also lead to mood disorders.

Studies on the impacts of e-cigarettes, and if they change the risk level for severe COVID-19 symptoms, are ongoing.

“What we can say is that any amount of nicotine is not good for the body,” Warner said. 

She said smoking is not a good way to relieve stress, and that quitting can improve mental health.

DHEC shifted some resources online during the pandemic, but it had already been using tools to target youth. A vaping program called Quit the Hit is a social media-based intervention program that uses Instagram to place teens in groups with a guide to give them a support system to quit vaping.

The state also launched a new website for the quit line,, which breaks down services.

Warner said nicotine users can call 1-800-QUIT-NOW to learn more about resources, get connected with a one-on-one coach who can give individualized treatment and identify triggers, and find out more about additional support. People can also enroll via text by texting “READY” to 200-400. Services are free.