Editor’s Note: Kelly Henning is the director of public health at Bloomberg Philanthropies. She’s also a former professor of infectious disease at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and served as director of the Division of Epidemiology at the New York City Health Department. Follow her on Twitter @DrKellyHenning. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Protecting people from the dangers of tobacco products – and holding tobacco companies accountable for their global actions – is a critical component in the fight against Covid-19.
Smokers are more likely than non-smokers to develop severe complications with Covid-19, according to a review of studies by public health experts convened by the World Health Organization. And, a new study of 169 hospitals in Asia, Europe and North America found that smokers have nearly double the likelihood of in-hospital death than non-smokers.
But just as important, tobacco use – a pandemic in its own right – is costly to individual smokers and to society. Smoking kills more than 8 million people a year, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. These deaths are preventable and come mostly from cancer, heart disease, stroke, chronic lung disease and diabetes—conditions that also contribute to high rates of Covid-19 mortality. The human price is exacerbated by the economic toll in health care costs and lost productivity costs that reaches $1.4 trillion annually worldwide.
We’ll be better able to fight this pandemic, and future ones, if we commit ourselves to improving the world’s health. Helping smokers quit will reduce the amount of people with underlying conditions that could make them more susceptible to Covid-19 and other infections. At the same time, to adequately fund efforts to fight coronavirus and prepare for unknown health emergencies to come, we must lower health care costs for households and health care systems and shift our economy away from production and purchase of harmful products, such as tobacco.
Maintaining a laser focus on tobacco control will work because, while there are still many more questions than answers when it comes to the coronavirus global outbreak, we know exactly how to defeat tobacco.
For more than a dozen years, The Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use has helped countries invest in and implement evidence-based programs and interventions – proven policies like creating smoke-free public places, banning tobacco advertising, increasing taxes on tobacco products, and requiring graphic pack warnings.
A five-fold increase in the number of smoke-free countries shows there has been significant progress. Nearly 5 billion people – 65% of the world’s population – are now covered by at least one comprehensive tobacco control measure. And more than 35 million lives have been saved.
In the midst of a pandemic, it’s never been more important for leaders in the United States and around the world to protect and improve the health of their citizens, and we can do that by scaling policies that work. For instance, research shows that increasing tobacco taxes is the most cost effective intervention at our disposal to reduce tobacco use.
Tax increases can be implemented quickly, and we know they work. For every 10% increase in the price of cigarettes, demand is expected to decline by 4% to 5%, according to the World Health Organization – and the resulting revenue can be substantial, which is especially helpful to governments during economic downturns like the one we face today.
But as we work to reduce tobacco use, we have a formidable foe: Big Tobacco. The World Health Organization’s 2020 World No Tobacco Day campaign highlights how companies have modernized their marketing playbook, continuing to target kids with traditional tobacco products and more novel delivery methods, like e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products. Even with new tactics, the industry’s goal has not changed: to attract young people as replacement customers for the millions killed by tobacco worldwide each year, as the WHO puts it.
Allowing Big Tobacco to keep preying on kids is not only unacceptable – it’s dangerous in a world that faces a new public health threat and will certainly face other ones. As Adriana Blanco Marquizo, head of the Convention Secretariat for the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, declared, the tobacco industry “has an irreconcilable conflict of interest with public health” and a “well-documented history of deception and of capitalizing on humanitarian crises, natural disasters and other similar catastrophic events.”
Tobacco companies are responding to Covid-19 with their usual profit motive and callous disregard for human life. They’ve tried to capitalize on government orders to stay at home by using the same social media hashtags to market new tobacco products and make themselves look like part of the solution to the pandemic by donating funds and equipment.
But the evidence is clear: Reducing tobacco use can help us defeat Covid-19 and create healthier populations more resilient to future pandemics. We know what to do; the only question is whether we have the will to do it.