We need to raise awareness about smoking, because smokers are vulnerable to respiratory viruses and infections including the flu and COVID-19.
We hear about "flattening the curve" so that the health system and hospitals are not overwhelmed and reduce the mortality from the spread of COVID-19.
The Tasmanian government and our public health experts have taken strong decisive action which I applaud. We are fortunate to have such high-quality staff within Public Health Service, who have experience with managing communicable diseases.
However, until recently nobody was talking about COVID-19 and smoking. There were lots of mentions of "underlying health conditions", without noting that many of these are caused by smoking. If this doesn't give smokers an extra incentive to quit for their health, then nothing will.
There is a strong link between the high smoking rates of males in China, between 40 to 60 per cent and high death rates in the older men from COVID-19. In China few women smoke. Evidence from China demonstrates that smokers are 14 times more likely to progress to pneumonia, intensive care, and death, than non-smokers.
Tasmania has the highest smoking rate in Australia after the Northern Territory. In some municipalities Tasmania has smoking rates which are similar to China, around 40 per cent, and an older age profile compared to all other states and territories.
At 30 June 2019, Tasmania had the highest median age of all the states and territories (42 years), followed by South Australia (40 years). Italy also has a much older population and Italian medics are making heart breaking decisions about who is treated, because of insufficient beds, staff and equipment. We can only hope that this issue will not need to be faced by our medics in Australia.
COPD and lung cancer are both caused by smoking, and COPD is the second leading cause of potentially preventable hospitalisations in Australia. In 2018 there were 14,000 people in Tasmania with COPD.
These individuals are more prone to lung infections, higher exacerbation rates, more inflammation, and loss of lung function compared to rest of the population.
Tasmania had a higher rate of adults who were overweight or obese compared with Australia (70.9 per cent compared with 67 per cent) driven by a higher rate of obesity (34.8 per cent compared with 31.3 per cent). Obesity is linked to diabetes, as is smoking. Diabetes is estimated to affect 27,000 to 33,000 Tasmanians.
So, in Tasmania we have a perfect storm for inviting infection, transmission and high mortality rates from COVID-19 of our citizens. High smoking rates, older age profile, high rates of obesity and diabetes all put the population at greater risk than other states.
Now is the time to ramp up efforts to help people to quit smoking and get them to refrain from using any vaping product which damages the lungs, such as waterpipes, e-cigarettes and heat-not- burn products such as IQOS.
It will be a "double whammy" on the Tasmanian health system with dual tobacco users. People must come before the bottom line profits of retailers of tobacco.
We must act now to: Legislate to raise the smoking age to 21 years (T21), to prevent a health disaster in our young people now and in the future; Increase action to help people to quit, which means increasing funding to Quit for more media advertising; Ensure access and provision of smoking cessation aids such as nicotine replacement therapy, and various prescription drug therapies; Implement policies and programs to lower smoking rates during pregnancy.
We do not know yet if smokers are more likely to transmit COVID-19, but they are certainly more likely to be associated with other diseases such as meningococcal infection. It may be months or years before we have the data on COVID-19 transmission "super-spreaders".
I strongly urge the government to raise the smoking age to 21 years. It should not be left up to me, an Independent member of Parliament to act on this. This is a legislated recognised health emergency. The government must act now.
Furthermore, I strongly urge the government to act to beef up Quit campaigns, to help people stop smoking, before they become premature casualties of COVID-19.
Dr. Mike Ryan from WHO says we should act fast, and he said, "speed trumps perfection" and "be fast, have no regrets. You must be the first mover. The virus will always get you if you don't move quickly," Dr Ryan said.
Admirably, the Tasmanian government has acted fast on containment, border protection, self-isolation, contact tracing. The government needs to act now on reducing smoking, to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and overwhelming our hospital intensive care units with smokers.
- Ivan Dean is the Independent member for Windermere.