World Health Organization Announces Program To Help 1 Billion Smokers Quit During COVID-19 Pandemic
Photo Credit: Raul Lieberwirth

The World Health Organization announced a new program on Friday to help more than 1 billion tobacco users – a group at high risk for coronavirus complications – quit smoking during the pandemic.

The project, the Access Initiative for Quitting Tobacco, will be first rolled out in Jordan, where 82.5% of men over the age of 18 used tobacco or e-cigarettes, and 60% of young people between the ages of 13 to 15 were addicted to nicotine, according to a 2019 survey.

“COVID-19 has required us all to don masks, and yet it has also unmasked too many uncomfortable truths. One of those glaring truths is that smoking tobacco in all of its forms – electronic and non electronic – has shown no benefits whatsoever to its users,” said Princess Dina Mired of Jordan. “On the contrary it depletes one’s health one’s heart, and money, and now also puts the user in the highest risk group for not only contracting COVID-19, but also in spreading it, as well as not being able potentially to fight and survive the virus due to higher vulnerability to severe complications.”

Princess Dina Mired of Jordan

Even before COVID-19, smoking killed an estimated 8 million people a year. It’s a large risk factor for many deadly non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But during a pandemic of a deadly respiratory pathogen, smokers lungs are even more vulnerable.

“But if users need more motivation to kick the habit, the pandemic provides the right incentive,” added WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The initiative aims to help smokers access nicotine replacement therapy, a tactic used to wean off of tobacco products, and other free resources to help quit smoking. WHO is also rolling out its first ever virtual health worker, eponymously named Florence after the world’s first nurse, to help quitters manage their smoking cessation plan.

The project will be led by WHO and the UN Interagency Task Force on Noncommunicable Diseases and brings together the tech industry, pharmaceutical and NGO partners like the Coalition for Access to NCDs Medicines & Products. Amazon Web Apps and Google, along with New Zealand and Australian companies helped develop Florence.

The pharma company Johnson & Johnson has joined to initiative to donate more than 40,000 patches of Nicorette, a line of nicotine infused products used for smoking cessation.

“We know that one simple patch of nicotine replacement therapy can change the trajectory of the health of a smoker. And this is what we are talking about here, one smoker at a time, but with a commitment to a large scale impact,” said Thibaut Mongon, Johnson & Johnson’s Worldwide Chairman for Consumer Health.

The program comes just a few weeks after the World Trade Organization ruled that Australia’s ‘plain-packaging’ laws for tobacco products did not present barriers to international trade – a major win for public health advocates against smoking.

Thibaut Mongon

Image Credits: Flickr: Raul Lieberwirth.