The government is right in prohibiting cigarette sales during the lockdown. Science is the best guid

The government has acted admirably, in taking steps to slow the spread of the new coronavirus and gain time for the health system to cope with the looming disaster.

Among the necessary steps it took, is a prohibition on the sale of tobacco and alcohol, as neither is a food or a medicine.

The current evidence-base for this decision, and the science, is clear.

Chinese studies show that those who smoke are at increased risk of developing severe complications if they get infected with the coronavirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US has confirmed this finding. The CDC estimates that those with a history of smoking are twice as likely to have severe COVID disease compared to non-smokers.

An increased severity of disease means that patients are more likely to be hospitalised, admitted to an intensive care unit, to be ventilated, or die.

The biggest problem faced by the countries, troubled by very high Covid-19 mortality rates, is a severe shortage of ventilators as well as other ICU facilities. The New York Times has reported that in the US, Covid-19 patients have to share ventilators.

South Africa has a reported 5000 ventilators, and the case for reducing the demands on the health system cannot be overemphasised. Everything possible must be done to prevent the healthcare system being inundated.

Stopping smoking will benefit both the individual and a struggling health system.

For the individual, their airways will improve, they will be less likely to have an acute heart problem, or pneumonia, and the need for hospital care will reduce.

An argument for allowing tobacco sales is that addicts will not be able to cope.

For most people the withdrawal symptoms from stopping smoking (craving, disturbed sleep, anxiety and irritability) are manageable, and they ease rapidly with time. Anyone who stopped smoking at the start of the lockdown will by now be past the worst.

Previous epidemic outbreaks have also demonstrated that when hospitals are overwhelmed

(as is predicted to happen), disability and preventable death can increase dramatically.

For people struggling with emotions, the solution is more complex and cannot be solved by a pill, a drink, or a smoke. Many organisations offer psychological support telephonically at this time, including the South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group who can be contacted on 0800 21 22 23 and 0800 70 80 90.

The vast majority of smokers (>75%) want to stop smoking but feel trapped by their addiction. The lock down may be the ‘nudge’ they need to a healthier life for themselves and their families. The smoking cessation support Quit Line, on 011 720 3145 is available to those seeking help to stop smoking.

At a time of crisis, allowing the sale of products that lead to worse outcomes could be seen as reckless.

For comment: Savera Kalideen

Cell: 0712270939 saverak@iafrica.com

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