Juliet GuichonThe coronavirus is not just a threat. It’s an opportunity. The COVID-19 pandemic offers every smoker and vaper with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to quit: a wake-up call.

The novel virus causes a respiratory disease that’s worse with lungs that are already vulnerable, whether because of age or disease. Lungs are also made vulnerable by smoking and vaping.

Recent wake-up calls began on Feb. 28 when a Chinese Medical Journal article reported that smoking increased the risk of becoming sicker by 14 times.

On March 11, a Lancet article reported that more men in China were infected by the virus than women, while reminding us that Chinese men smoke at a much higher rate than women – according to the World Bank, 48 per cent of Chinese men smoke while only 1.9 per cent of women do.

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A 2003 study of the SARS coronavirus and a 2016 study of the MERS coronavirus found that smoking was associated with the illnesses caused by the viruses.

That smoking and vaping would be a problem for COVID-19 patients isn’t surprising. Smoking and vaping bring hot chemical-filled vapour into the lungs, inflaming the cells. The hot vapour harms the hair-like cleaners in the lungs, preventing them from efficiently moving mucus and other debris out.

Smoking and vaping also impede the lungs’ defence system, operated by white blood cells and lymphocytes.

The addictive property in the chemical soup, nicotine, also harms lung cells.

Vaping products usually contain nicotine and sometimes vitamin E acetate, which has been associated with severe lung injury.

Most vapers surveyed by Statistics Canada considered vaping less harmful than cigarette smoking. But like smoking, vaping makes the lungs more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Many vapers are young. The U.S. Surgeon General has said vaping might be the reason young people are suffering seriously from coronavirus.

Young vapers often share a vaping device. Because the virus can be transmitted by contact with contaminated surfaces, shared vapes will facilitate transmission. Both smoking and vaping involving repetitive movement from hand to mouth, creating a transmission route for the virus.

Many physicians want tobacco and vape sales banned, including a U.S. association of family doctors who seek “to lessen the impact and progression of this serious virus on those who contract it.”

Perhaps feeling the threat, the Canadian Vaping Association is claiming that selling vaping products is “an essential service” during the pandemic.

Whereas physicians and scientists are science-based, merchants aren’t. As a tobacco researcher says about reducing COVID-19 risk, “It’s very sensible to stop insulting your lungs.” Now is the time to quit.

The benefits arrive almost immediately.

So how can a person addicted to nicotine through smoking or vaping seize the opportunity to quit that COVID-19 presents?

Your pharmacist will help combat nicotine addiction in a manner that doesn’t require inhaling heated liquids. Strategies include chewing gum, patches, a nicotine spray or an inhaler, and gradually reduced doses of nicotine.

Other health-care professionals are ready to provide advice and support. A government of Canada website links to provincial and territorial help.

For teens and young people, now is a great opportunity to quit vaping because the required physical distancing reduces the peer pressure that might have initiated vaping. Post-secondary students might be at home now, free from an environment that condones vaping.

Now is the time to stop smoking and vaping. Health-care professionals are eager to help. Contact them.

When you feel like smoking or vaping, you might try a distraction – like washing your hands or helping a friend. Applaud yourself for adopting a healthier lifestyle – particularly during this pandemic.

Julies Guicon is an associate professor at the University of Calgary.

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