The ban on cigarettes sales has slowed the spread of COVID-19 and will ease pressure on the health system, a panel of experts led by UKZN’s Professor Mosa Moshabela has found.
The panel was at UKZN’s Data@breakfast, a webinar hosted by Moshabela – an expert on public health – where the national debate around smoking and COVID-19 came under the spotlight.
Results of a study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) were shared at the gathering.
Moshabela said the ban was to protect smokers from COVID-19, with evidence showing they were more likely than non-smokers to progress to a critical stage of the illness. He said the ban would help reduce the number of cases.
The study found that while cigarettes continued to be sold, a majority of smokers had no access to them, leading to a number of gains against the pandemic.
‘The majority of smokers (88%) were not able to buy cigarettes during lockdown, suggesting the ban was efficient in reducing cigarette access and use,’ said HSRC statistician, Dr Ronal Sewpaul.
Presenting the data collected over two weeks from smokers around the country, Sewpaul said based on the research outcomes, the study found that cigarette buyers were in close physical contact with people outside their homes more often than non-smokers, suggesting less than optimal social distancing, a key component to avoiding contracting the virus.
Those who were able to buy cigarettes during the ban had a significantly higher chance of coming into contact with people outside their homes at 26% than 10% of those who did not. Those who continue to buy cigarettes also came into contact with at least 10 people outside their home compared to those who did not,’ Sewpaul said.
Given that smokers experience more serious COVID-19 outcomes than non-smokers, they needed to be aware of the serious risks smoking exposed them to should they contract the virus.
‘If only 1% of the eight million smokers in South Africa were to contract the virus, 80 000 would be affected,’ said Sewpaul. ‘It is estimated 5% of the COVID-19 infected smokers would require admission to ICU. This would translate to about 4 000 people needing ICU hospital beds and ventilators across the country. Under current calculations, this would exceed the availability of ventilators and place health workers at risk.’
Sewpaul said the study outcomes showed that allowing smoking during this period would be creating an environment conducive to less social distancing and likely to cause a situation where the health system would be overwhelmed.
Executive Director of the National Council against Smoking Dr Yusuf Saloojee said the addiction argument was also not strong enough to put pressure on government to allow the sale of cigarettes during the pandemic. ‘Smokers are likely to have severe symptoms which will overwhelm our health system,’ he said. He encouraged smokers to use the cigarette ban period to quit.
Go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJTiDgNpaWs&feature=youtu.be to watch the webinar.
Words: Nombuso Dlamini