Coronavirus fears may have driven over 300,000 UK smokers to quit

A woman smokes a cigarette while wearing a mask, as the number of coronavirus cases grow around the world, in central London, Britain March 14, 2020.
A survey suggests that thousands of UK smokers have quit or are thinking of quitting due to COVID-19.
Image: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
  • A survey of UK smokers suggests many have quit or are thinking about it because of coronavirus.
  • Some evidence suggests that smoking may increase the transmission of the virus into the body.
  • But other studies appear to show that nicotine may have some protective effects.

More than 300,000 UK smokers may have quit in recent months, with concerns about the additional health impact that cigarettes may have during the coronavirus outbreak.

A survey of UK adults conducted by YouGov and the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) suggests that a further 550,000 smokers have tried to quit, and 2.4 million have cut down.

Some evidence seems to suggest that smokers are more vulnerable to COVID-19, as their fingers are frequently in contact with their lips, increasing the likelihood of the virus being transmitted from their hands. Smokers may also already have lung problems and reduced breathing capacity, which could impact their ability to battle coronavirus. A small study from China found that COVID-19 sufferers who smoke are significantly more likely to develop severe pneumonia.

Of those surveyed by YouGov, 2% percent of people had quit due to concerns about coronavirus, 8% were trying to quit and 36% had cut down. A large contingent said they were more likely to quit, and former smokers were less likely to to resume. That said, there were a handful who had relapsed during the pandemic.

Distribution of cigarette smoking status in England in 2018, by gender
In the UK, more men than women are smokers.
Image: Statista

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Staying out of hospital

Smoking is linked to a number of other health issues, such as heart attacks, strokes, and respiratory problems. Quitting - even after smoking-related problems have developed - will likely improve life expectancy and bring both immediate and longer-term health benefits.

Hospital admissions which can be caused by smoking in England (UK) 2000-2018 Published by Conor Stewart, Sep 27, 2019  In 2000/01 there were approximately 1.28 million adults admitted to hospital in England due to an illness caused by smoking. By 2017/18 the number of hospital admissions as a result of smoking had increased to approximately 1.86 million, the largest number during the provided time period. Smoking prevalence across age groups in England In England in 2017, 26 percent of men and 17 percent of women aged between 25 and 34 years were current smokers. This is the highest share of male smokers across the age groups, while the age group of 16 to 24 years had the largest proportion of female smokers at 21 percent. Situation north of the border In Scotland, the highest share of regular smokers is found in the age group 25 to 24 years at approximately a quarter, followed by those aged between 35 and 44 years at 21 percent. In 2017, 20 percent of men and 16 percent of women overall in Scotland were current smokers.  Read more Number of admissions to NHS hospitals which were caused by smoking in England (UK) from 2000 to 2018
Hospital admissions related to smoking are rising year-on-year in the UK.
Image: Statista

Dr Nick Hopkinson, chairman of ASH and a respiratory specialist at Imperial College London, told the Guardian: “Smoking harms the immune system and our ability to fight off infections. Evidence is growing that smoking is associated with worse outcomes in those admitted to hospital with COVID-19.

“Quitting smoking also rapidly reduces people’s risk of other health problems such as heart attacks and strokes. Those are bad whenever they happen, so preventing them is an end in itself, and is especially important at a time like now when everyone is keen to stay out of hospital.”

U.S. smokers' desire to quit 2001-2017, by daily tobacco consumption Published by John Elflein, Oct 6, 2017  This statistic displays the percentage of U.S. smokers who wanted to quit smoking from 2001 to 2017, by daily tobacco consumption. It was found that, almost 68 percent of those who smoked more than one pack of tobacco daily wanted to stop smoking. Percentage of smokers in the U.S. who wanted to quit from 2001 to 2017, by daily tobacco consumption
Many smokers are keen to quit.
Image: Statista

There are some suggestions however, that nicotine - one of the chemicals in cigarettes - could help the body fight COVID-19.

A French study suggested that “current smoking status appears to be a protective factor” against infection from the disease, finding that the number of COVID-19 patients who smoked was far fewer than in the general French population. One theory is that nicotine may stop the virus from reaching cells in the body. Other studies have also discussed the potential of nicotine as a treatment.

The suggestion has prompted a follow-up trial to test the hypothesis. Healthcare workers and patients will wear nicotine patches and then be tested to see if they respond differently to the virus.

The sale of nicotine products has been restricted in France to avoid shortages, and the government is keen to point out that nobody should take up smoking as a preventative measure.

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