The World Health Organisation (WHO) as well as several research and civil society organisations have thrown their weight behind the government’s continued ban on tobacco sales as it begins to relax the lockdown, saying the prohibition would reduce the number of severe cases of Covid-19 and lessen the load on the health system.
SA is among a tiny minority of countries that have imposed a ban on tobacco sales as part of its efforts to manage its Covid-19 epidemic, which has affected at least 6,000 people and killed more than 100. India and Botswana have also banned the sale of tobacco products, and several other countries are considering following suit, according to the non-profit National Council Against Smoking (NCAS).
The emerging science on Covid-19 indicated people who used tobacco products were more likely to become critically ill, need a bed in intensive care and require mechanical ventilation, and were at increased risk of death, said the organisations in a joint statement on Monday. The group includes the WHO, the NCAS, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the Human Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the Cancer Association of SA, Africa Centre for Tobacco Industry Monitoring and Policy Research, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
They said e-cigarettes had been linked to lung damage and cardiovascular disease during the pandemic, and smokers with Covid-19 were more likely to develop severe disease than non-smokers.
There is currently no local data on tobacco use and Covid-19 as provincial health departments are not collecting information on whether patients are smokers, according to the health department’s acting director-general, Anban Pillay.
The WHO’s country director for SA, Owen Kalua, said there was no safe level of exposure to tobacco products and people who kicked the habit even a short while before they became infected with Covid-19 would benefit. “Covid-19 is such a bad disease, you don’t take chances. Any action to minimise [the risks] is a good thing,” he said.
As a signatory to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, SA had an obligation to counter the illicit trade in tobacco products, which could undermine the ban, he said.
The Medical Research Council’s Catherine Egbe said there were flaws in a widely publicised French study that suggested smokers were much less likely to get infected with Covid-19. It had not been subjected to peer review and one of its lead authors had ties to the tobacco industry, she said.
The study triggered such interest that the French government moved to prevent people from stockpiling nicotine products.