Lung cancer outtrumped by Covid-19?

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If working in a convenience store has taught me anything, it’s that people definitely feel guilty about buying tobacco in the current climate. Countless customers come in and say, “I shouldn’t… but I’m stressed so I will”, or “these aren’t all for me!”, as if they need to validate their decision to smoke.

This guilty feeling is certainly not exclusive to my village; figures from the ASH show that over one million people in the UK have quit smoking since the Coronavirus pandemic hit. While these are impressive statistics, why has it taken a global pandemic for people to re-evaluate their decision to smoke?

[blockquote author=”” ]The threat of lung cancer was not enough, because that didn’t seem like it would ever happen.[/blockquote]

Anyone who grew up in the UK will remember the drugs awareness courses everyone goes on when they’re ten or eleven years old. For me, a mobile lorry classroom visited our school every year, and inside a man with a giraffe puppet told us not to smoke or we’d get really ill, or worse die. So, we were all vaguely aware of the long-term effects of smoking, but the emphasis was never on how badly the lungs could be compromised, only stories of middle-aged people dying of lung cancer. The threat of lung cancer was not enough, because that didn’t seem like it would ever happen; it was so distant.

The striking thing about the Coronavirus is its immediacy and ubiquity. Its effects are surfacing continually, and gruelling stories about the virus are impossible to escape from. According to the government, “People who smoke generally have an increased risk of contracting respiratory infection and of more severe symptoms once infected”, and Covid-19 infections are no different. So, it makes sense that smokers are ditching the “it’ll never happen to me” mentality because their smoking implicates them as high risk, right now.

[blockquote author=”” ]Smoking costs the NHS a whopping two billion pounds.[/blockquote]

Arguably, we’ve all become a little more conscientious about how we use the NHS, so another incentive to quit smoking could be to reduce pressure on our already overstretched NHS. ASH estimates that annually, smoking costs the NHS a whopping two billion pounds and contributes to over 450,000 hospital admissions. To put some scale on this, the NHS has 140,000 hospital beds in total, according to The King’s Fund. These admissions could be significantly reduced if people quit smoking, freeing up hospital space for those who can’t avoid being there.

The closure of social venues such as clubs and bars may also have contributed to the decline in smokers. If people aren’t out smoking with their friends, a more casual smoker may decide that it’s not really necessary to smoke in their day-to-day life. The Coronavirus has been a rude financial awakening for many of us; as of the 23rd July, almost 150,000 people had been made redundant as a result of the pandemic. And when money is tight, luxury items with high tax, like cigarettes, would have to be the first to go.

It will be interesting to see how these statistics affect education about smoking for young people. Will lung cancer remain the biggest threat of smoking, or will viral respiratory infections take precedence in the UK’s education policies about smoking? Perhaps teaching the young people of Britain about the immediate effects of smoking in the light of the Coronavirus (protecting the NHS, as well as your own health), will make the ramifications more real.

Image: Michael Ocampo via Flickr.

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