Stronger tobacco control pushed as smoking causes severe Covid-19

As the coronavirus pandemic persists, medical groups and public health experts are highlighting the higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms among smokers, hence the need for stronger tobacco control measures in the country.

Tobacco use increases COVID-19 risk.” Medical and public health professionals, led by law group ImagineLaw, emphasizes the higher risk of novel coronavirus disease or COVID-19 pandemic to tobacco users and calls for more solid ground of tobacco control to fight COVID-19. L-R Dr. Rizalina Racquel Gonzales (Philippine Pediatric Society), Atty. Sophia San Luis (ImagineLaw), Dr. Glynna Ong-Cabrera (Philippine College of Chest Physicians/ Lung Center of the Philippines), Dr. Donna Panes (Smoke Free Baguio), Dr. Anton Javier (Philippine Society for Public Health Professionals) | Photo by ImagineLaw

At a public health forum hosted by ImagineLaw, Dr. Glynna Ong-Cabrera of the Philippine College of Chest Physicians (PCCP) said that like cigarette smoking, the SARS-COV2 virus which causes COVID-19 also targets the lungs. Whenever a tobacco user removes their face mask, puts the cigarette in their mouth and smokes, the risk of getting COVID-19 gets higher. 

“Extensively, smoking increases the risk of getting infected with COVID-19 and it worsens the severity once you get the virus so definitely stronger tobacco control measures are a big part of COVID-19 response,” said Dr. Ong-Cabrera who is also the head of Quitline, a smoking cessation program of the Department of Health (DOH) in partnership with the Lung Center of the Philippines.

Dr. Ong-Cabrera stressed that stronger smoking cessation campaigns and tobacco control measures should be part of the Philippines’ response to COVID-19.

But while the tobacco industry remains a public health burden in the Philippines, the country also continues to have the strongest tobacco lobby in Asia.

And for ImagineLaw Executive Director, Atty. Sophia San Luis, the tobacco industry continues to be a burden in the middle of a global pandemic, as it propagates both COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses caused by tobacco cigarettes.

“Even as the tobacco industry paints itself as an ally in public health through donations and so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR), let’s not forget the simple and unassailable fact that they continue to sell and profit from a product that kills 50% of its users, and that exposes the public to worse COVID-19 outcomes,” said Atty. San Luis.

An example of a local government that has effectively implemented tobacco control is Baguio City, where they passed a Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) ordinance to prevent the harms of tobacco use especially during pandemic.

After its implementation, the city had a decrease in the prevalence of smoking both in adult and in the pediatric age group, from 37.5% to 17.6% among over-all current smokers. Smoking prevalence also decreased among the Baguio City youth, from 28.13% smokers in 2014 to 12.3% today.

Photo by ImagineLaw

“Not only should we encourage the public to quit smoking. We also need to protect our government agencies, LGUs, and hospitals from the influence of tobacco companies and their fronts during the pandemic,” said Dr. Donna Panes, head of Baguio City Health Services Office Epidemiology Surveillance Unit.

At the national level, there’s an existing Joint Memorandum Circular 2010-01 by the Department of Health and Civil Service Commission, which protects the government bureaucracy against interference by tobacco industry lobbyists. Dr. Anton Javier of the Philippine Society for Public Health Professionals believes this regulation should be strengthened.

The best way to control the spread of COVID-19 is to make your home smoke-free, according to Dr. Rizalina Racquel Gonzales from Philippine Pediatric Society.

She says if polluted air caused by smoking is removed, the risk for developing COVID-19 will become lesser.

“Home is where the heart should be so home is where the health should be. Tobacco control should start where the family resides in this pandemic,” said Dr. Gonzales. 

Smoking per se is not an essential product. Dr. Gonzales believes that if we want to create a healthy generation, we need to get rid of tobacco cigarettes. She calls the attention of household members, particularly parents to be mindful of smoking and its residue effects to their children. She is also against the use of e-cigarettes or vapes, which are being branded as a ‘safer’ alternative. 

Even before COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippine healthcare system was struggling to keep-up with pre-existing respiratory illnesses. Dr. Javier says, if we do not control the use of tobacco now, it will be harder to control the spread of COVID-19 and the problems that are already present in pre-pandemic life. 

“You had problems to begin with and you want the problems to stop coming in.”

About the Author

Airah Bombase is a Broadcasting student from the Laguna State Polytechnic University – Sta. Cruz and currently an editorial intern of SubSelfie.com.

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