FULL CLAIM: “Might as well resume smoking, no one has died of cancer or heart disease since the COVID-19 thing started”
Several memes related to the COVID-19 pandemic have become popular on social media platforms since 2020. One such example can be seen in this Facebook post dating back to at least August 2020, which shows the logo of the Marlboro tobacco company along with the text “Might as well resume smoking, no one has died of cancer or heart disease since the COVID-19 thing started.” The post has been shared over 68,000 times to date.
At the onset of the pandemic, public attention was focused on COVID-19, as it is a novel infectious disease and protective measures to reduce the risk of infection, such as the use of face masks and physical distancing, were actively promoted and received great media coverage. One possible explanation for the meme could be to point out that other diseases, such as cancer or heart disease, have received less attention since the beginning of the pandemic.
The meme could also be related to the false claim that deaths from various causes were attributed to COVID-19 to exaggerate the severity of the pandemic. This claim has been previously debunked by several fact-checkers, including claim reviews by Health Feedback (like this one, this one, and this one), and this fact-check by Reuters.
The statement made in the meme is false. Heart disease and cancer remain the leading causes of mortality in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here we explain how deaths due to cancer and heart disease have evolved during the pandemic in relation to previous years and how the pandemic may have affected mortality from these diseases.
The number of cancer deaths are similar to those from previous years; deaths due to heart disease have increased in 2020
Heart disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death in the U.S., according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2019, the latest year for which definitive statistics are available, heart disease claimed the lives of 659,041 people in the U.S., while cancer caused 599,601 deaths. The third leading cause of death in 2019 was unintentional injuries, which caused 173,040 deaths. These data reflect the mortality recorded in previous years, as can be seen in briefs from 2018, 2017 and 2016.
Provisional U.S. mortality data compiled by the CDC show that heart disease caused 690,882 deaths in 2020, while cancer claimed 598,932 lives. COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the U.S., with 377,883 deaths in 2020. Therefore, the claim that no one has died of cancer or heart disease since the COVID-19 pandemic is false.
The claim that deaths from other diseases were either accidentally or deliberately attributed to COVID-19 is unsupported by these figures. If the claim were true, the reported numbers of deaths from cancer or heart disease would have decreased, but this isn’t the case.
Furthermore, between 15 March 2020 and 23 January 2021, 494,000 excess deaths were reported in the U.S., which means that more deaths occurred in that period than the average of previous years. As the CDC points out, these excess deaths reflect both deaths caused directly by COVID-19 and an increase in deaths from other causes indirectly related to the pandemic.
As the data shows, while the figures of cancer deaths were similar in 2019, in 2020 there was an increase of about 32,000 deaths from heart disease in the U.S. This could be partially due to COVID-19, which has resulted in increased mental stress and reduced outdoor exercise. Other behavioral changes associated with the pandemic are a decrease in hospital visits and a decrease in home medical visits, which could have worsened pre-existing cardiovascular conditions.
A study published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in September 2020 reported the results of an online survey, showing that 41% of adults who responded to the survey neglected medical care during the first months of the pandemic, including 12% who avoided urgent or emergency care. According to the report, this could lead to worsening of existing medical conditions, as well as failure to detect new medical conditions early.
The report found various reasons for this avoidance of medical care, including stay-at-home orders, temporary closures of health facilities, and fear of exposure to infection with COVID-19. Care avoidance was significantly higher among unpaid caregivers, likely due to concern about exposure of care recipients to COVID-19.
Related to this, a study of Google search trends revealed an increase in queries about symptoms of heart disease, specifically queries about chest pain, during the first months of the pandemic, coinciding with an increase in cases of COVID-19. According to the authors of the study, this could indicate that patients opted for self-trial in an effort to avoid hospital settings and the risk of COVID-19 contagion.
On the other hand, according to other studies that analyzed trends in the Google search engine, there was a decline in queries for health information related to cancer screening during the first months of the pandemic. But another study concluded that more recent cancer-related search trends have reverted to those existing before the pandemic.
The delay in cancer diagnosis due to delayed screening could be reflected in an increased mortality from this disease in the coming years. This is the conclusion reached by studies carried out in the U.S. and the U.K., which have warned of a possible mortality increase from various types of cancer in the next 5 years.
The claim that there have been no deaths from cancer and heart disease since the COVID-19 pandemic began is false. Mortality data indicate that cancer fatalities in the U.S. in 2020 are similar to figures from previous years, while there has been an increase in deaths from heart disease. The increase in deaths related to heart disease may be due to behavioral changes in individuals during the pandemic, such as reduced outdoor exercise or a decrease in hospital visits.
- 1 – Czeisler et al. (2020) Delay or Avoidance of Medical Care Because of COVID-19–Related Concerns — United States, June 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
- 2 – Ciofani et al. (2021) Internet search volume for chest pain during the COVID-19 pandemic. American Heart Journal.
- 3 – Adelhoefer et al. (2021) Decreased public pursuit of cancer-related information during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Cancer Causes & Control.
- 4 – Xu et al. (2021) Online Public Interest in Cancer During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JCO Clinical Cancer Informatics.
- 5 – Pat et al. (2020) Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Care: How the Pandemic Is Delaying Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment for American Seniors. JCO Clinical Cancer Informatics.
- 6 – Maringe et al. (2020) The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer deaths due to delays in diagnosis in England, UK: a national, population-based, modelling study. The Lancet Oncology.