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Health organisations call for stronger tobacco control as new study links smoking to higher risk of dying from COVID-19

Dr Sharon Nyatsanza of the National Council Against Smoking (NCAS) says a respiratory pandemic is an opportune time for an increased focus on tobacco control, especially as new evidence shows a strong link between smoking and increased risks of severe COVID-19. According to UK Biobank research published in a leading respiratory journal, Thoraxsmoking increases the chances of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms by 80% and increases the risk of death by 511%, for smokers who smoke 20 or more cigarettes a day. 


The new study found that compared with those who had never smoked, current smokers were 80% more likely to be admitted to hospital. It found that heavy smoking significantly increased chances of dying from COVID-19 complications, by up to 511% for those who smoked 20 or more cigarettes a day - compared to non-smokers. The UK study drew on primary care records, COVID-19 test results, hospital admissions data and death certificates to look for associations between smoking and COVID-19 infection severity from January to August 2020 in over 400 000 participants of the UK Biobank. 

“This study strengthens the evidence base and establishes a causal link between smoking and serious COVID-19 complications,” says Dr Sharon Nyatsanza, Deputy Director of the National Council Against Smoking. “It also supports the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) Minister’s case, who has since been granted leave to appeal the Western Cape Judgement over the temporary ban on tobacco sales. A key justification raised by government, was that tobacco use was linked to worse Covid-19 outcomes and that the ban was important in easing the burden on the health system.”

Nyatsanza highlights the importance of passing South Africa’s new Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill as soon as possible, particularly with reports from the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) indicating that the death toll from Covid-19 is up to three times more than reported, making South Africa one of the worst affected countries in the world.  “We need urgent action to pass this updated and comprehensive set of measures to better protect our nation’s health and reduce the burden of tobacco-related disease on our health system, now and beyond the pandemic.”

Nyatsanza says that encouraging people to quit smoking and reducing smoking prevalence should be high on the list of preventive steps, as it keeps people out of hospital.  “Smoking is related to the risk of getting severe Covid-19, as it is to a number of non-communicable diseases like cancers and cardiovascular disease. Now is the time to quit smoking.” 

Smokers who need help to stop smoking can call the NCAS Quitline at 011720 3145 or send a WhatsApp message on 0727664812.


For further information, contact:

Sharon Nyatsanza: 079 666 1356 / 011 725 1514
Deputy Director of the National Council Against Smoking

The National Council Against Smoking is a leading not-for-profit organization working to promote public health by encouraging a tobacco-free society.

Notes to editor:

  1. Research article: Clift, A.K., et al. (2021) Smoking and COVID-19 outcomes: an observational and Mendelian randomisation study using the UK Biobank cohort. Thorax. https://thorax.bmj.com/content/early/2021/09/12/thoraxjnl-2021-217080


IMAGES: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/gs1zifk9or7xhw9/AAB4NITRLeVQp6r3gcgWfsrza?dl=0

Media Contact:
Tamaryn Brown
Connect Media
084 3510560 / Tamaryn@connectmedia.co.za

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Smoking is the single most preventable cause of death in the world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that in South Africa (SA) alone, smoking results in more than half of lung cancer deaths, 37% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease deaths, and over 20% of cardiovascular deaths and tuberculosis (TB) deaths. Smoking-related TB deaths are especially prevalent in South Africa, due to a higher vulnerability of HIV-positive individuals to TB.  Because it attacks the lungs, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) could be an especially serious threat to those who smoke or vape.

The new Control of Tobacco and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill will make it easier for South Africans to choose smoke-free lives, regulate the danger of e-cigarettes and decrease the impact of second-hand smoke on the majority of the population, who are non-smokers. Why is taking time to implement? Tobacco industry profits are at the expense of addicted smokers, their families, and public health.  Together, the National Council Against Smoking (NCAS), the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa are steadfast in campaigning for the new Bill to be passed. It’s time for our people and our government to show leadership in implementing global best practice to curb the onslaught of big tobacco. 

Zanele Mthembu, Public Health Development and Policy Consultant

Savera Kalideen, Executive Director of the National Council Against Smoking 

Sharon Nyatsanza, Project and Communications Manager, National Council Against Smoking 

Lorraine Govender, National Advocacy Co-Ordinator, Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA)

Professor Pamela Naidoo, CEO, The Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa

Dr Catherine Egbe, Specialist Scientist: Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drug Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council

Tamaryn Brown
Connect Media for Cart Agency
+27 (0) 84 3510560

Nirvana Kishoon 
Cart Agency
+27 (0) 82 823 3167


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