It’s been a stressful year, so it’s understandable that many of us have been looking to de-stress any way we can. Hopefully those ways have been healthy, such as exercising more or finding a new hobby to pursue. But it’s also a reality that in times of stress, we sometimes turn to less healthy habits, like drinking alcohol or using tobacco products.
Despite these stressors, the COVID-19 pandemic is showing there’s never been a better time to stay smoke-free, reduce the amount you smoke or vape or quit smoking and other tobacco products entirely. Because the coronavirus primarily affects the lungs, people who smoke and vape are at much greater risk for health complications if they get COVID-19. Studies suggest smokers who develop COVID-19 are 14 times more likely to need intensive treatment compared with nonsmokers.
“Employers can do their part to protect the health of workers by promoting the benefits of tobacco cessation and implementing tobacco-free worksite policies,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “The LHSFNA is available to assist LIUNA signatory employers with developing sample language and policies that fit their specific work environment and needs.”
The Reasons Behind Increased Risk
It’s well-known that smoking weakens the immune system, reduces lung function and increases risk for respiratory infections like the common cold and seasonal flu. Part of that is because of increased mucus production and a reduction of cilia, the hairlike fibers in the lungs that move debris out of our airways.
“If any organism gets down there in the lower airways, whether it’s the coronavirus or another virus, you’ve got the mucus that it can get stuck in, and it can’t get whisked away because the cilia are not working,” says Dr. John Swartzberg, professor emeritus of infectious diseases at UC-Berkeley. “So those organisms have a perfect home.”
Early research is also pointing to another reason smoking and COVID-19 may be such a dangerous combination. Smoking increases the level of an enzyme in the body called ACE-2, and SARS-CoV-2 enters the body by attaching to cells that have the ACE-2 receptor. In short, more ACE-2 means more pathways for virus particles to enter the body, increasing the risk for infection.
There are also other, less complex reasons why people who smoke and vape are more likely to get COVID-19 than nonsmokers. One is that the act of smoking or vaping involves not wearing a mask and repeatedly bringing the hand close to the mouth.
“You touch the cartridge. You put it next to your face. You are spreading whatever is in your hand into your body,” says Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, director of pediatric research at the Tobacco Research and Treatment Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. “At the same time, many of my patients who smoke or vape have increased coughing or expectorating. And that’s a recipe for increased spread.”
Quitting Now Helps Protect You and Others
Not smoking, vaping or using any tobacco products is one of the biggest changes you can make to protect and improve your health. In addition to all the health benefits of quitting smoking, becoming smoke-free may also reduce your need to use the healthcare system.
Studies show smokers are about three times more likely to visit the emergency room as nonsmokers. Staying out of healthcare settings will reduce contact with and time spent around healthcare professionals and other patients, limiting your risk for COVID-19. It also reduces strain on the healthcare system and allows healthcare professionals to give care where it’s needed most. In the event you have COVID-19 and are asymptomatic or are not yet showing symptoms, avoiding a doctor’s visit also helps limit community spread and protect workers and other patients.
“Quitting during this pandemic could not only save your life, but by preventing the need for your treatment in a hospital, you might also save someone else’s life,” says Dr. Winickoff.
Join the Great American Smokeout
The American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout is an annual event that encourages and supports smokers to quit smoking or make a plan to quit smoking. This year’s Great American Smokeout is November 19, 2020. Click here to learn more about the event, explore available resources and find out where to get help to quit smoking.
LIUNA signatory contractors and other LIUNA affiliates can click here to learn more about how the LHSFNA is addressing tobacco cessation, including available publications, posters, Quit Tobacco Kits and more. For additional assistance, call the Fund’s Health Promotion Division at 202-628-5465.