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Tobacco use: How it affects COVID-19

Tobacco use concept.The effects of tobacco use on human health are well-documented – and there is a growing body of evidence surrounding the habit’s effect on those with COVID-19. Meanwhile, the tobacco industry has regularly been in the firing line for its conduct during the pandemic. On the occasion of World No Tobacco Day, observed on Sunday, this was brought to the fore. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the tobacco industry is exploiting young people, even during the pandemic of COVID-19 – the disease caused by severe acute respiratory coronavirus syndrome 2 (SARS-CoV), commonly referred as the coronavirus. “Even during a global pandemic, the tobacco and nicotine industry persist by pushing products that limit people’s ability to fight coronavirus and recover from the disease,” the WHO said. “The industry has offered free branded masks and delivery to your door during quarantine and has lobbied for their products to be listed as ‘essential’.” 

An editorial in The British Medical Journal entitled “the two faces of the tobacco industry during the COVID-19 pandemic” expounds upon this alleged trend. The editorial reads

“While tobacco companies ostentatiously behave like model corporate citizens in their CSR [corporate social responsibility] efforts around the coronavirus crisis, behind the scenes they aggressively push back against emergency public health actions to reduce coronavirus transmission. As part of national lockdowns governments have stopped the production and sale of non-essential goods in order to limit unnecessary human-to-human contact. This led to a halt in cigarette production in Russia and Argentina, and an effective ban on cigarette sales in South Africa where tobacco products were identified as non-essential, a recommendation now made by WHO.

“Yet, despite evidence of the link between smoking and COVID-19 and a call from WHO for smokers to quit, tobacco companies have been fighting these protective measures with media statements and appeals to policymakers claiming the restrictions would force consumers to defy the lockdown, drive illicit tobacco trade, harm tobacco farmers and shopkeepers, and damage state budgets.”

In India, the tobacco industry exerts a powerful presence even as control efforts to reduce tobacco use have yielded positive results in recent years. Yet the lockdown has witnessed an increased number of Indians attempting to kick the habit. IANS reported last month that 72 percent of Indians aged eighteen to 24 and 69 percent of Indians aged 25 to 39 have used lockdown to try and stop combustible tobacco use, citing a survey by the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. 

The Union Government in April did issue a directive banning the sale of tobacco products during the lockdown extension to preserve physical distancing. A number of states and union territories have since banned the consumption, spitting and smoking of tobacco products in public places. Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan earlier urged the same. 

Tobacco use is a health risk, the pandemic notwithstanding, elevating the risk of a plethora of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) ranging from lung disease to heart conditions. As previously reported by Health Issues India, “tobacco use is the fourth leading cause of death in the country. One million Indians lose their lives every year to the consequences of smoking.” This comes despite 8.1 million fewer Indians smoking during the 2016-17 period compared to 2010.”

In the context of COVID-19, the WHO reports that “smoking impairs lung function making it harder for the body to fight off coronaviruses and other diseases. Tobacco is also a major risk factor for noncommunicable diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease and diabetes which put people with these conditions at higher risk for developing severe illness when affected by COVID-19. Available research suggests that smokers are at higher risk of developing severe disease and death.” 

Concurring, interventional pulmonologist Dr Prem Ananth P. notes “though there is no direct evidence showing those who consume tobacco are more prone to COVID-19, poor respiratory health due to tobacco-caused chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can in turn aggravate if infected by COVID-19.”

Ensuring that tobacco control efforts continue to be undertaken are vital, especially during the age of COVID-19. India has made strides on efforts to curb tobacco use in recent years. Going forward, the significance of such efforts is heightened. 

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