CINCINNATI — Will the stress of the COVID-19 crisis result in more tobacco use among Greater Cincinnati adults?
Interact for Health CEO Dr. O’dell Owens said his independent foundation is trying to make sure the answer to that question is “no.”
Owens said it won’t be easy.
“You can imagine people who are sheltered in with three or four kids and their husband and maybe Grandma. And even if they were a smoker that maybe had quit, may restart because they’re stressed. Smokers that were trying to quit may smoke more. And those that weren’t trying to quit and were just regular two-pack-a-day smokers may smoke even more,” Owens said. “We’re really concerned that we will lose ground.”
Just six months ago, Interact for Health released the results of a survey that showed fewer Greater Cincinnati adults were smoking than in the past. But even then, the region lagged behind the nation when it came to kicking the habit.
But when Interact for Health examined cigarette sales in March of 2019 compared to March of 2020, the organization found an increase of 1.2%, he said.
“Now some of that may be hoarding. I understand that,” Owens said. “But I also think it reflects an increase in smoking. And then with that comes all the other things.”
There’s second-hand smoke exposure to children who are home because schools are closed, he said, and even third-hand exposure when adults go outside to smoke, get it on their clothes and then come back in and hug their children.
“Our message is for people to stay home, stay healthy, stay alive,” Owens said. “If you want to live, you’ve got to minimize your risk factors. And we know that smoking is a risk factor.”
Smoking lowers the body’s immune system, he said, making smokers more susceptible to the highly contagious COVID-19. And smokers who get the virus are more complicated to treat, he said. It also remains the number one preventable cause of death, Owens added.
“If you’re going to quit, this is the time to quit,” he said.
Owens said he and other public health advocates understand that things are stressful. Interact for Health is recommending that people put on masks to go outside and exercise.
“Play games with your kids. Do things you haven’t done in a long time. Have fun. Laugh. Be distracted from just thinking about your situation, which we know is tough,” he said. “But we’ve got to lessen the stress at home.”
The Interact for Health Facebook page has videos and tips related to smoking cessation, said Emily Gresham Wherle, the organization’s director of public relations and community engagement.
There’s also a toll-free number to call for support and help in quitting, she said. That number is 1-800-QUIT-NOW.
Owens said he and his team are concerned about vaping, too, because it also can compromise people’s lungs, which is where the new coronavirus attacks.
Also, people who have COVID-19 and vape can spread the virus through the plumes of their vape, which can spread even farther than a person’s cough, he said.
Interact for Health will continue to try to spread those messages in hopes that the region doesn't lose the progress it had made when it comes to reducing tobacco use, Owens said.
“I’d just hate for us to wake up on the other side of this and we have to start all over,” he said.