As the nation wrestles with the coronavirus epidemic, it has become clear that there is a connection between smoking and the epidemic. It manifests in at least six ways.
First, those whose lungs have been damaged by smoking are more vulnerable to the serious lung complications of COVID infection. This is because their lungs have pre-existing structural damage that makes them less able to handle the inflammation resulting from the infection. It is likely, although at this point this is conjectural, that people who currently or formerly smoked are also more susceptible to becoming infected with COVID, as they are with other infectious respiratory diseases. We do know that more men die from COVID, and that in countries like China, Italy, Spain, and the US it is more common for men to smoke than it is for women. This is not to say that smoking is the only or most important factor for serious infection, but rather that it increases the odds.
Second, because there are short-term benefits from stopping smoking, such as improved lung function and pulmonary hygiene, stopping smoking is one way to reduce the chances of serious illness.
Third, because people who smoke are more likely to cough at baseline, when they become infected they are more likely to spread the virus to others. Thus, stopping smoking may diminish the spread of the COVID virus.
Fourth, during a time of general sheltering at home, those who continue to smoke are more likely to expose their fellow residents to second and third-hand smoke exposure than when they were doing some of their smoking outdoors.
Fifth, we know that in crisis situations such as severe medical illnesses (think heart attacks) or special events (think the New Year), people who smoke are more likely to try to quit. This should serve as a powerful motivator to use this current crisis to promote smoking cessation. It may lower the risk of getting infected with COVID, it will improve prognosis if infected, and it will certainly improve short and long term health. So let’s use the resources that we know work to help people who smoke quit tobacco: counseling, FDA-approved medications, and the toll free telephone quitlines available in all states (1-800-QUIT-NOW).
Sixth, at a time when many people have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet, not having to spend precious funds on buying cigarettes frees them to purchase food and other essential items.
Finally, we at the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center want to salute the brave men and women on the front lines of this epidemic. These means not only the health workers, but those who provide essential services such as transportation and groceries. And our hearts go out to those whose lives have been disrupted by losing jobs, income, housing, and health insurance. It is our fervent hope that we will emerge from this crisis as a stronger and more unified country.
Visit the SCLC resource page for COVID-19 and tobacco use information.