Is COVID-19 really making people quit smoking?

Published on Reset

Before the lockdown, 25-year-old Elena Buzzo liked to smoke a few cigarettes while having a beer with her university friends in Dublin. But when Italy closed its borders in early March, she moved back to her parents’ flat and stopped smoking. Since then, she has only smoked three cigarettes in over two months. 

“I wasn’t going to quit when I came back,” Buzzo says, “but my family doesn’t smoke.” So, fearing for her parents’ health in the midst of a respiratory disease outbreak, she no longer feels like lighting up in the house. “Smoking outside is a mess,” she adds. “I’d have to wear a mask and gloves. Also, touching my face is not a great idea.”

Italian health authorities strongly recommended that smokers quit since the beginning of the lockdown. Italy’s national health service has highlighted that smokers are more vulnerable to COVID-19, not only due to the gesture of bringing the hands to the mouth, which facilitates transmission, but also the potential for underlying lung disease or reduced lung capacity due to smoking.

Such recommendations held strong despite a French study released in April that tentatively suggested smokers are unexpectedly less at risk of COVID-19, as nicotine might be a protective factor against contracting the virus.

In the UK, the country with the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, the number of smokers has also dropped. Over 300,000 Brits quit because of the pandemic and another 2.4m are cutting back, according to the anti-smoking campaign Ash. 

For Londoner Matthew Taylor, 28, it happened naturally. “Before the lockdown, I just smoked in the social setting, so the fact that now it’s no longer possible is the big reason why I’ve stopped. There is no temptation.”

Taylor says he is now trying to get healthier by running long distance during the extra free time. “I am not smoking for that reason as well,” he adds. 

What works for 58-year-old Bart Haneveld is to “start doing something else at the moment I really want to smoke, such as watering the plants or cleaning up.” He has smoked for most of his life but, fed up with rising cigarette prices, he took this opportunity to quit.

Whether out of fear of the disease, new quarantine health goals, or the lack of social contexts for smoking, it seems that the lockdown has inspired many people to drop their habit. The #QuitForCovid campaign has been trending on Twitter, and a surge in demand for smoking cessation products saw a 54 per cent increase in sales during the third week of March. 

From their side, tobacco companies have joined the fight against COVID-19 as well. Tobacco giant Philip Morris International made a controversial donation of 50 ventilators to the Greek government as infections mounted in the country, while British American Tobacco is now working on a vaccine using tobacco leaves. 

The trend towards kicking the habit looks promising, but what will become of all these good intentions when the spectre of the virus is gone?

Counselling psychologist Michael Padraig Acton points out cigarettes are not only a physical addiction but a social ritual too. “The addictive nature of nicotine leaves the system within four days, the rest is social and habitual,” he explains.

“This time was much easier for me,” says Mattia Manerba, 26, who had tried quitting cigarettes before but has now gone without for over five weeks. “I’m not partying, I’m not meeting friends for a coffee, I’m not going to work. I have no reason to smoke.”

According to psychologist Acton, the loss of social interactions associated with tobacco can indeed make it easier to quit, making these quarantined months a perfect opportunity to do so. 

But when the lockdown is lifted and social relations restored, it is likely that many ex-smokers will go back to their addiction. As Elena Buzzo readily admits: “I know that as soon as everything returns to normal, I’ll probably resume.”  

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