New Delhi, July 29: Smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 as smoking increases the possibility of transmission of the virus from hand to mouth, the Union Health Ministry has said, warning that use of tobacco products can increase the severity of respiratory infections and make people susceptible to coronavirus.

In its document ‘COVID-19 Pandemic and Tobacco Use in India’, the ministry said experts have confirmed that smokers are more likely to develop severe symptoms or die from COVID-19, as it primarily attacks the lungs and warned against the use of any such products. Smokers, it warned, are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 as the act of smoking means that fingers (and possibly contaminated cigarettes) are in contact with lips which increases the possibility of transmission of the virus from hand to mouth.

“Further smoking products such as water pipes or hookah often involve the sharing of mouth-pieces and hoses, which could facilitate the transmission of COVID-19 in communal and social settings,” the ministry said. Tobacco use is a major risk factor for the four main Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic lung disease and diabetes, which puts people with these conditions at higher risk for developing severe illness when affected by COVID-19.

NCDs are estimated to account for 63 pc of all deaths in India and these are expected to rise further. The chemicals in tobacco smoke suppress the activity of different types of immune cells that are involved in general and targeted immune responses. “Smoking impairs lung function, thereby reducing the immunity and making it harder for the body to fight off various diseases. Smoking, e-cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, pan masala and the like products use can increase the risk and severity of pulmonary infections because of damage to upper airways and a decrease in pulmonary immune function,” it said.

Evidence from countries reporting coronavirus infection-related fatalities has highlighted that the people with pre-existing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are more susceptible to becoming severely ill with COVID-19, the document stated. Tobacco use poses a significant risk by accelerating the transmission of COVID-19 because the virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Chewing tobacco products (khaini, gutkha, paan, zarda) increases the urge to spit. Spitting in public places increases health risks especially those of spreading the infectious and contagious diseases like, COVID-19, tuberculosis, swine flu, encephalitis, etc, the ministry underlined.

“The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare warns against the use of any tobacco products,” it said, adding within 12 hours of quitting, the carbon monoxide level in the bloodstream drops to normal. Within 2-12 weeks, circulation improves and lung function increases. After 1-9 months, coughing and shortness of breath decrease, it said.