Simone Pettigrew, George Institute for Global Health, looks at an unexpected opportunity
Smokers are worried. A respiratory disease is running rampant across the globe and people with unhealthy lifestyle habits appear to be especially vulnerable.
We know smokers hospitalised with COVID-19 are more likely to become severely unwell and die than non-smokers with the disease.
At any point in time, most smokers want to quit. But COVID-19 provides the impetus to do it sooner rather than later.
In our new study, we surveyed 1,204 adult smokers across Australia and the United Kingdom. We found the proportion intending to quit within the next two weeks almost tripled from around 10% of smokers before COVID-19 to 29% in April.
Many more were thinking about quitting some time soon, and most wanted help to do so.
Our research shows many people who smoke understand they can reduce their COVID-19 related risk by addressing their smoking. Given this, and the broader health gains associated with stopping smoking, we must ensure people who want to quit in the face of COVID-19 are supported.
Information and support
When asked whether they’d like to receive information about the risks of COVID-19 for smokers, almost half (45%) of our respondents said they would. This was especially the case among those wanting to quit very soon.
As for where they wanted to get this information, participants most commonly chose government representatives (59%) and doctors (47%) as their preferred sources.
Television news was the most favoured information delivery channel (61%), followed by online news (36%), social media (31%) and email (31%).
As well as being receptive to information, our participants were keen for support to help them quit.
Evidence-based forms of smoking cessation assistance include nicotine replacement therapy (for example, gum, patches and inhalers) and counselling.
Almost two-thirds (61%) of our respondents expressed an interest in receiving nicotine replacement therapy to help them quit, which rose to more than three-quarters (77%) if it could be home-delivered and provided free of charge.
Half (51%) wanted access to personal advice and support, such as that provided by Quitline. A similar number (49%) were receptive to being part of a text support program for smokers.
These results show us smokers are interested in forms of quitting assistance that can be delivered remotely. Making sure smokers know these sorts of things are available in lockdown could increase uptake, and in turn reduce smoking rates.
It’s also important to note the social isolation associated with the pandemic may make people more vulnerable to the addictive effects of nicotine. So they may need extra support during this time.
Two big risks to our health
Strong groundwork in the form of anti-smoking campaigns, tobacco taxes, and smoke-free environment legislation has reduced smoking levels in Australia to a record low of 11%. But even at this rate, smoking remains Australia’s number-one avoidable killer.
Smoking eventually kills up to two-thirds of regular users, and the number of people dying from smoking-related diseases still dwarfs COVID-19 deaths.
Roughly eight million people around the world die each year from tobacco-related diseases (such as cancer, stroke and heart disease), compared to the almost one million deaths attributed to COVID-19 so far.
Of course, the infectious nature of COVID-19 brings its own set of challenges. But combined, we have a potent reason to prioritise encouraging and helping smokers to quit as soon as possible.
There has been speculation about whether smoking increases the risk of contracting COVID-19, or whether nicotine might actually protect against the disease. The evidence remains unclear.
Regardless of whether smoking affects the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the first place, we know it increases the risk of dying from it. Providing intensive quit support during the pandemic could facilitate a substantial boost to cessation rates and bring us closer to the day when smoking becomes history.
Capitalising on this opportunity
Smokers’ increased risk from COVID-19 and the importance of encouraging smokers to quit to reduce their risk of a range of non-communicable diseases means health agencies around the world are sending messages about the importance of quitting now.
Our results suggest these statements should ideally be accompanied by explicit offers of help to quit in the form of nicotine replacement therapy and counselling. Investment in these is cost-effective, and now is an ideal time to make them as widely available and affordable as possible.
Many smokers would also likely benefit from the use of mass media to provide more information about their greater risk if infected with COVID-19.
This heightened interest in quitting in the face of COVID-19 — reflected not only in our research, but elsewhere — represents a unique opportunity for governments and health agencies to help smokers quit, and stay off smoking for good.
Readers around Australia can call Quitline on 13 7848 or visit www.quit.org.au to access a free multi-session quit assistance program.