Smokers are more likely to contract the coronavirus as smoking increases the possibility of transmission of virus from hand to mouth, the Union Health Ministry has said, adding that use of tobacco products impairs lung function, thereby reducing the immunity and making it harder for the body to fight off various diseases.
The ministry released a document titled ‘COVID-19 Pandemic and Tobacco Use in India’ Tuesday, stating that the “act of smoking means that fingers (and possibly contaminated cigarettes) are in contact with lips which increases the possibility of transmission of virus from hand to mouth”.
“Further smoking products such as water pipes or hookah often involve the sharing of mouth-pieces and hoses, which could facilitate the transmission of COVID-19 in communal and social settings,” the document said.
The document said since tobacco use is a major risk factor for the four main non-communicable diseases (NCDs)—cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, and diabetes— it puts people with these conditions at higher risk of developing severe illness when affected by COVID-19.
NCDs are estimated to account for 63 per cent of all deaths in India and are expected to rise further. The chemicals in tobacco smoke suppress the activity of different types of immune cells that are involved in general and targeted immune responses.
“Smoking impairs lung function, thereby reducing the immunity and making it harder for the body to fight off various diseases. Smoking, e-cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, pan masala, and the like products use can increase risk and severity of pulmonary infections because of damage to upper airways and a decrease in pulmonary immune function,” it said.
Citing evidence from countries reporting COVID-related fatalities, the document stated that the people with pre-existing NCDs are more susceptible to becoming severely ill with COVID-19.
Tobacco use poses a significant risk by accelerating the transmission of COVID-19 because the virus spreads primarily through “droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes”.
Warning against the dangers of spitting tobacco products such as khaini, gutkha, paan, zarda in open, the document said it increases health risks especially those of spreading infectious and contagious diseases like COVID-19, tuberculosis, swine flu, encephalitis, etc.
“The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare warns against the use of any tobacco products,” it said, adding within 12 hours of quitting, the carbon monoxide level in the bloodstream drops to normal.
Within 2-12 weeks, circulation improves, and lung function increases. After 1-9 months, coughing and shortness of breath decrease, it said.
The document was in concurrence with the WHO statement on tobacco use and COVID-19 issued on May 11 this year. The report had cited a review of studies by public health experts convened by WHO on April 29, 2020, which found that smokers are more likely to develop severe disease with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers.
WHO had urges researchers, scientists and the media to be cautious about amplifying unproven claims that tobacco or nicotine could reduce the risk of COVID-19.