Tobacco Users are at higher risk of severe illness when affected by COVID-19

Did you know tobacco kills more than half of its users? Each year over 80 lakh people die worldwide because of tobacco usage in one form or the other2. More than 70 lakh of these deaths are due to direct tobacco usage2. Tobacco is a major risk factor for a number of diseases affecting all age groups3. Tobacco harms nearly every organ of the body, causes many diseases, and reduces the health of users in general4. Tobacco is also a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease and diabetes5.

Those people who use tobacco and suffer from any non-communicable disease; are at higher risk for developing severe illness when affected by COVID-195. COVID-19 is an infectious disease that primarily attacks the lungs5. Smoking impairs lung function making it harder for the body to fight off coronaviruses and other diseases5.

Talking about the risk of COVID-19 amongst tobacco smokers, Dr BC Goswami, Director, State Cancer Institute, GMCH, said,”A recently published study analysing infected patients found that those with a history of smoking were 14 times more likely than non-smokers to have progression to pneumonia-like symptoms. Evidence also shows that the gene expression, which COVID-19 uses to infect cells, is significantly higher in tobacco smokers than non-smokers, therefore suggesting greater susceptibility to COVID-19 among users9.

Around 80% of world’s smokers live in low and middle income countries like India2.

“Smokeless tobacco could lead to spread of viral and bacterial diseases along with COVID-19. Most oral tobacco users hold the quid in their mouths for a period of time and then spit out the tobacco juice along with their saliva. “Spitting” is most often done in open public places9. The WHO has advised that COVID-19 can spread through small droplets from the nose or mouth, which are dispersed when an infected person coughs or exhales,” said Dr Arundhati Deka, State Programme Officer, State Tobacco Control Cell, Assam.

31st May is World No Tobacco Day. The day is observed every year by WHO to inform the public on the dangers of using tobacco, the business practices of tobacco companies, what WHO is doing to fight the tobacco epidemic, and what people around the world can do to claim their right to health and healthy living and to protect future generations1.

Benefits of quitting tobacco are immense and your body starts feeling them within 20 minutes. Within 20 minutes of quitting, elevated heart rate and blood pressure drop. After 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level in the bloodstream drops to normal. Within 2-12 weeks, circulation improves and lung function increases.5 WHO recommends that tobacco users must take immediate steps to quit5.

The need to take immediate steps to quit tobacco and promote the cause of not initiating tobacco consumption is even higher in Assam. The state has an average tobacco consumption of 48.2% vis a vis the national average of 28.6%; which is almost double of national average10. 41.7% people use smokeless tobacco in some form vis a vis 13.3% users of smoked tobacco10.

While talking about the alarming number of tobacco users in Assam, Dr Rajiv Pathni, Head of Operations, Assam Cancer Care Foundation, said, “In Assam smokeless tobacco users are three times that of smoked tobacco users. These are alarming numbers calling for desperate measures. While the Government of India, in wake of COVID-19 pandemic, has banned the use of tobacco products and spitting in public places under the Disaster Management Act, efforts are needed at every level and personal commitment is essential.”

Help is available for those who want to quit. National Tobacco Control Programme (NTCP) offers a toll free quit-line 1800112356. For those seeking sms based quitting assistance, they need to give a missed call at 011-22901701 from their mobile number and register. Tobacco cessation centres are also available at district level7.

Tobacco users need to be sensitized about the current scenario and nudged to quit tobacco and ‘stop-spitting.’ The responsibility of the individuals towards family, society and the nation need to be highlighted and the youth need to be spurred to not to initiate tobacco consumption.