Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause death and illness, yet it remains the biggest public health threat in the world causing more than 8 million deaths each year; 7 million of theses being as a result of direct smoking while about 1.2 million being as a result of exposure to second-hand smoke. Smoking has huge impact on respiratory health, for instance, it causes lung disease by damaging the small air sacs found in the lungs.
Lungs are important as they help in the process of gas exchange where oxygen enters the blood and carbon dioxide and other waste products leaves the blood. Reduced function of the lungs therefore translates to their reduced ability to carry out this function. Smoking and the use of other tobacco products is known to weaken the immune system and its ability to respond to infections, thus making tobacco users more vulnerable to infectious diseases. Smoking also causes or worsens many diseases and conditions including Corona virus.
Corona virus is part of a large family of viruses which may cause illnesses such as respiratory infections ranging from common cold to more severe diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The most recently discovered corona virus causes corona virus disease officially known as COVID-19. The disease is thought to have originated from China towards the end of 2019 and has since spread around the globe rendering the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare it a global pandemic.
What is the relationship between COVID-19, lungs and smoking?
Though new, just like other respiratory viruses, COVID-19 affects the movement of air into and out of the lungs. It damages the walls of the air sacs found in the lungs making them thicker hence harder for them to transfer oxygen making it difficult for a person to breathe. Smoking too damage the lungs; lungs naturally produce mucus but those who smoke have hard mucus which clogs making smokers more vulnerable to infections.
COVID-19 attacks the whole lung instead of just a part of it and one of the ways the body reacts when fighting such an infection in the lungs is by destroying the virus and limiting its replication but this mechanism is greatly limited in people with underlying conditions, such as lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases, smokers and the elderly. Even though currently there is a gap in evidence to show the direct relationship between tobacco smoking and COVID-19, research in China, where the disease originated from, show that patients with underlying conditions are at a greater risk of more severe symptoms.
A recent study conducted by Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA between 12 February to 28 March 2020 revealed that among over 7,000 cases that were examined, about 71% of those hospitalized due to COVID-19 and 78% of those admitted to the intensive care unit had one or more underlying health conditions and some of them were smokers or former smokers.
Some of these underlying conditions such as cardiovascular diseases (CVD) and lung cancer are directly linked to the use of tobacco products. For instance, the use of tobacco and exposure to second hand smoke are the major causes of cardiovascular diseases contributing to approximately 17% of all cardiovascular disease deaths globally. Tobacco use is also ranked the highest cause of cancer contributing to about 22% of cancer- related deaths in the world including lung cancer.
On 23 March 2020, WHO published information note on COVID- 19 and NCDs and mentioned smoking as one among the risk factors that make people vulnerable to becoming severely ill with COVID-19. According to the note, the act of smoking would increase the risk of smokers transmitting the virus from hand to mouth as their fingers and possibly contaminated cigarettes would come into contact with their lips. WHO warns in this note that any condition that increases oxygen need or reduces the ability of the body to use it properly will put patients at higher risk of the consequences of COVID-19.
Besides the WHO and Ministry of Health guidelines on social distancing and maintaining high levels of hand hygiene, it is important to maintain healthy lifestyles during these times. Quitting smoking is one of the ways of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and while at it, smokers should avoid using other coping strategies such as use of alcohol or alternative tobacco products.
By Elizabeth Mbugua
International Institute for Legislative Affairs