Cigarettes are a hotly debated topic since they were banned, especially since the scientific reasons behind the ban do not seem clear.
Arguments have been waged over how much impact smoking has on those who contract COVID-19, with the government arguing that it worsens the illness.
However, one of the countries top scientists, Professor Shabir Madhi, claims that the ban on cigarette sales, scientifically, is without merit.
On a webinar, on the MyHealthTV.com website, Madhi, the professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand and the director of the Medical Research Council’s respiratory and meningeal pathogens research unit, responded to a query regarding the debate on cigarettes.
“Unfortunately, there really isn’t much merit from a scientific perspective in terms of banning smoking but allowing people to buy alcohol – in fact, what we are seeing right now is that the sale of alcohol is resulting in an increased pressure on our healthcare facilities,” Madhi said, according to News24.
“The evidence around cigarettes and COVID-19 is that smokers are known to have a 1.5 greater risk at developing severe disease than non-smokers, so that is the scientific evidence. In terms of whether they are more likely to die, there isn’t very compelling evidence to show any difference in terms of COVID-19 mortality deaths,” he said when asked about the reasons for the ban on cigarettes.
He also added that a smoker who stops would not be any more protected from the virus.
“It is something that is chronic; it causes damage to the lungs and that’s what is eventually resolved in people becoming more susceptible – not just to developing severe COVID-19, but developing more severe influenza and a whole lot of other diseases. It does not mean that, if you stop smoking today, you are going to reverse that sort of risk,” he explained.
He said that quitting smoking does reverse risks, but over a long period of time and not quick enough for it to make a difference in terms of the current coronavirus crisis.
According to BBC, South Africa’s lockdown regulations were some of the strictest in the world. While alcohol sales have now been legalised again, the cigarette ban continues.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said that the continued ban is “due to the health risks associated with smoking.” The government justifies the ban on grounds of health and advice from experts and from the World Health Organisation.
Evidence on the link between smoking and heightened severity of the virus is limited, but it exists. The WHO reviewed available literature and found that there may be a link.
“At the time of this review, the available evidence suggests that smoking is associated with increased severity of disease and death in hospitalised COVID-19 patients. Although likely related to severity, no evidence to quantify the risk to smokers of hospitalisation with COVID-19 or of infection by SARS-CoV-2 was found in the peer-reviewed literature,” it said.
Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said that even short term quitting brings benefits such as better circulation and lung function.
“Given the short- and long-term benefits of quitting smoking, it was decided that a temporary ban on the sale of tobacco products would be likely to reduce the risks associated with Covid-19 transmission and severity set out above,” she said in an affidavit filed with the high court in Pretoria.
The Minister also said that the decision would help reduce the impact of the virus on the healthcare system. High numbers of smokers contracting the virus would require high numbers of ICU beds and ventilators, which are already lacking.
Despite the evidence for and against the ban, most smokers are still finding a way to get their fix. A University of Cape Town study, conducted between 19 April and 11 May, found that 90% of smokers purchased tobacco products during the lockdown.