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Right now is an especially good time to quit smoking

The Minnesota Department of Health launched a group of free programs this week to help state residents quit nicotine.

cigarette butt
Smokers who become infected with the coronavirus are at much greater risk of having a worse outcome, perhaps because of smoking’s compromising effect on the body’s immune system.
Photo by Ray Reyes on Unsplash

If you’re one of the 70 percent of smokers who want to quit, now would be a particularly good time to do so.

Although it’s not yet known if smoking increases the likelihood of contracting COVID-19, previous research has shown that inhaled tobacco smoke raises the rate of the transmission of other viruses. The smoke appears to make it easier for viruses to enter the respiratory tract and replicate.

But there’s an even more concerning connection between smoking and COVID-19: Smokers who become infected with the coronavirus are at much greater risk of having a worse outcome, perhaps because of smoking’s compromising effect on the body’s immune system.

In a study from China published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, smokers were found to be 2.4 times more likely to have severe symptoms from COVID-19 than non-smokers.

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On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported online that American smokers who contract COVID-19 are at increased risk for hospitalization for the illness, including the need to receive intensive care.

Those studies focused on cigarette smoking, but health officials think vaping may also put people at greater risk of COVID-19 complications.

“Vaping, like smoking, may also harm lung health,” writes Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, on her official blog. “Emerging evidence suggests that exposure to aerosols from e-cigarettes harms the cells of the lung and diminishes the ability to respond to infection,” she adds.

Help with quitting

Quitting smoking — or vaping — is challenging at any time, but it may seem especially daunting now, during the unsettled, anxiety-ridden days of the current pandemic.

With that hurdle in mind, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) launched a group of free programs this week to help state residents quit nicotine.

And you don’t have to leave your home to get that help.

The programs — collectively called Quit Partner — are available online, by phone and by snail mail. They provide a variety of stop-smoking services, including personalized coaching, educational materials, email and text support, as well as access to “stop-smoking medications” (nicotine patches, gum or lozenges) delivered by mail.

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“Our goal is to provide free quitting help to Minnesota residents when they want it and in the way that best meet their quitting needs,” says Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm, in a released statement. “Most people who smoke want to quit, and we’re here to help.”

Quit Partner has designed its programs to meet the specific needs of different groups of Minnesotans. It has separate programs for people with mental illness or substance use disorders, for example, as well as for American Indian communities, pregnant women and new mothers, and teenagers.

“The new youth program is especially important, as commercial tobacco use among our high school students has increased for the first time in nearly 20 years,” says Malcolm.

Other evidence

Also on Wednesday, Cochrane, a nonprofit global organization of independent scientific investigators, released a special collection of its reviews on the most effective, evidence-based ways to quit smoking.

All reviews in this collection can now be read — for free — on Cochrane’s website. It’s hoped that smokers attempting give up their nicotine addiction will find them useful.

“There is a wealth of evidence on the best ways to stop smoking,” explains Cochrane investigator Jamie Hartmann-Boyce, a lecturer and researcher at Oxford University, in a released statement. “The evidence suggests people who smoke should use a combination of stop smoking medicines and behavioural support to give them the best chances of success.”

“Options may be limited at this time, but there are ways to boost chances of quitting smoking that don’t involve face-to-face contact or prescriptions,” she adds.

Giving people choices for overcoming their nicotine addiction is essential, for it increases the odds that they’ll be successful at quitting. That’s important — and not just for the health of the former smoker.

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As the Cochrane researchers point out in the introduction to the special collection, helping smokers quit protects others, too, by reducing exposure to secondhand smoke.

“The World Health Organization urges people to stop smoking tobacco to minimize the risks associated with the current coronavirus pandemic in both people who smoke and those exposed to second-hand smoke,” they write.

FMI: You can access the MDH’s Quit Partner programs through that the agency’s website. You’ll find the Cochrane reviews on the most effective stop-smoking interventions on its website.