Post Bulletin: I’m a smoker … And along comes a pandemic

This article appeared online for the Post Bulletin out of Minnesota. It was published on March 31. The original article can be read by clicking here.


I’m a smoker … And along comes a pandemic

Matthew Stolle

Mar 31, 2020 Updated Apr 1, 2020

It’s never been a great time to be a smoker. Now in the midst of a pandemic, it just got riskier for smokers.

Yet smoking is a coping mechanism for many, and pandemics are nothing if not stressful.

Dr. J. Taylor Hays, director of the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center, talked with the PB about the heightened risks smokers face and why now might be the time to quit.

PB: Why are smokers at risk for COVID-19?

Hays: Several things are at play. One of the more obvious ones is that smokers have a higher risk for all kinds of conditions that are associated with more risk of complications from COVID-19. So, for example, chronic lung disease, COPD, emphysema. People with chronic lung disease have a higher risk of complications and more serious and critical infections.

More specifically, we know that smoking decreases the ability of the lungs to fight infection. The main thing that smoking does is impede the clearance of mucus from the lungs. We have in our lungs little hairs on the cells called cilia that beat in a coordinated fashion and move the mucus we produce up (towards the throat). That’s how we clear infections.

In smokers, those cilia don’t work. They’re paralyzed.

PB: So if I’m a smoker, I’m more susceptible to COVID-19. And if I get the infection, my symptoms are more likely to be more severe. Is that right?

Hays: More complicated, more severe, longer recovery time. Greater chance of having to go to the hospital, developing lower respiratory infections and pneumonia.

Early data from China suggests that smokers were over-represented among the people who had severe and critical illness, who had higher risk of mortality from the COVID infection.

PB: Here’s a hard-hearted question: Smokers know the risks. Why should I care?

Hays: You’re right. People do make choices in their lives. And some of those choices end up costing them. And in this case, the cost could be dear. But my comeback to that is: Because of the nicotine in tobacco causes addiction, people really lose the ability to choose.

So if a chemical is driving the urge to smoke and causing withdrawal around quitting, those are hallmarks of addiction.

Also, smoking doesn’t just impact you. It impacts people around you. If you’re inside your house, which we all are, and you’re smoking, second-hand smoke exposure is also a risk factor for more serious COVID 19 infection.

PB: Let’s say the pandemic scares me enough to consider stop smoking. If I stopped now, would I get any appreciable benefits?

Hays: The answer to that is an unequivocal yes. We know that within hours of stopping, respiratory symptoms begin to improve. Within days, the clearance of mucus begins to improve.

PB: What is the percentage of people who smoke?

Hays: It’s gotten a lot better in the U.S. We’re now down for all adults to 15 percent to 17 percent in most states. In Minnesota, we’re probably down to 14 percent. That’s the lowest we’ve been since before World War II.

PB: Do the risks you describe also apply to marijuana smokers and people who vape?

Hays: The answer to that is unknown. We presume that if you inhale any combustible product or e-cigarettes, that it can cause some irritation to the lung. That’s probably not a good thing to do. If you’re exposed to COVID and have to fight an infection, we presume it would increase your risk. But there’s no data on that yet.

Those interested in quitting can find more information by calling 1-800-quit-now, a national quit line. You can also access information at