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Quit smoking now or be part of the COVID-19 death stats

Rita Widiadana

The Jakarta Post

Denpasar, Bali  /  Tue, May 12, 2020  /  03:40 pm
Quit smoking now or be part of the COVID-19 death stats

The rate of people attempting to quit smoking is insignificant. The WHO reported that up to 30.4 percent of smokers in Indonesia have tried to quit smoking, but only 9.5 percent have been successful, despite the increased excise tariff. (JP/Dhoni Setiawan)

The COVID-19 pandemic has a clear and strong message for 1.3 billion tobacco users around the world and that is to quit smoking.

“This is the absolute best time to quit smoking,” said Gan Quan, director of tobacco control at the Paris-based International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Diseases (The Union).

He further said The Union was deeply concerned about COVID-19’s impact on smokers, especially those living in low-and middle-income countries, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, where health systems are plagued by tobacco-related diseases.

Tara Singh Bam, The Union’s Asia Pacific deputy director in Singapore, elaborated in a virtual interview about the grave situation in the region concerning tobacco users and the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Tobacco kills over 8 million people every year globally, out of which 2.3 million deaths occur in the Asia Pacific region,” Tara said adding that the region was home to about 600 million tobacco smokers and had been the prime target of multinational tobacco companies.

“More concerning is that this region has the world’s highest tobacco use rates, and two-thirds of all men use tobacco. About 67 million people and 63 percent of adult males smoke in Indonesia, which sees more than 225,700 people die every year from tobacco-related diseases,” added Tara, who has conducted years of comprehensive research and studies into tobacco usage and its impacts on the people and public health systems of Indonesia, Nepal and other Asia-Pacific countries.

A smoking fact sheetA smoking fact sheet (WHO/-)

Indonesia, which has one of the highest smoking rates in the world, is the only country in the Asia Pacific region that has not ratified the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), while at the same time, the country witnessed a rocketing smoking rate among youth (10-18 years old) from 7.2 percent in 2013 to 9.1 percent in 2018.

Tara continued that tobacco smoking is a leading common risk factor for major non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that account for more than 70 percent of untimely deaths globally. These NCDs include cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases.

“In the Southeast Asia region, NCDs account for more than 55 percent of deaths, and about 80 percent in the Western Pacific region. The WHO estimates that about 1.4 million people die from NCDs in Indonesia annually,” he explained.

Reports from around the world show that people with NCDs are more likely to suffer severe COVID-19 with serious outcomes, including death, he added.

“More worrying is the association of tobacco smoking with COVID-19,” Tara stated. 

Studies from China show that smokers are 14 times more likely to be infected by SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease, and experience worse outcomes compared to non-smokers.

In a study published in February 2020 by the New England Journal of Medicine, smokers were 2.4 times more likely to have severe symptoms from COVID-19 compared to those who did not smoke.

“It suggests that tobacco use is associated with a poor evolution/poor prognosis of COVID-19 and more serious results, including admission to intensive care units, use of mechanical ventilators and even death,” said Tara.

Evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2 primarily affects the respiratory system, causing mild to severe respiratory damage.

“The fact that smoking is a risk factor for many lower respiratory tract infections is further evidence of this important link between smoking-related harms and COVID-19,” added Tara.

“Thus, it is urgent that stronger action be taken to implement tobacco control interventions, including raising taxes and prices on tobacco and alcohol products, as well as sustaining prevention of NCDs that would significantly contribute toward controlling the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said

In their joint article titled “COVID-19 propelled by smoking could destroy entire nations”, published by the European Respiratory Society in March 2020, Kathryn Barnsley and Sukhwinder Singh Sohal, scientists from the University of Tasmania’s Respiratory Translational Research Group write that many countries are starting to come to terms with the fact that smokers are 14 times more likely to die from COVID-19, but few countries have issued warnings to quit smoking.

“To our knowledge no country has ramped up its tobacco control prevention measures,” the authors write.

At the same time, scientists at The Union have strongly urged countries to prioritize and implement proven, evidence-based policies from the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

“Countries have a moral imperative to advise their citizens of this urgent fact and facilitate massive cessation efforts,” added Quan.

The Union is also deeply concerned that the tobacco industry is spreading misinformation-through blog posts and social media, denying the link between smoking and COVID-19.

“The industry is capitalizing on the crisis to improve its public relations by offering donations and partnerships to governments,” Quan said.

At the same time, tobacco companies continue to aggressively market their products, which — in addition to causing 8 million deaths every year — are exacerbating the COVID-19 crisis.

“With mounting evidence that smokers are at higher risk of severe illness from this disease, the best thing the tobacco industry can do to help countries fight COVID-19 is to immediately stop producing, marketing and selling tobacco,” said Quan.

The writer is a member of the Asia Pacific Media Alliance for Tobacco Control and NCDs Prevention.

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