ISLAMABAD: Smokers are more vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and are at higher risk of contracting the virus because their immune systems are weaker, the head of the Human Development Foundation (HDF) said on Tuesday.

HDF CEO Azhar Saleem issued a statement in which he said that among Chinese patients diagnosed with COVID-19, the odds of disease progression - including to death - was 14 times higher among people with a history of smoking than people who did not smoke.

He said smoking weakens the function of the body’s defence immune cells and the production of antibodies in humans. The damage caused by chemicals present in tobacco to human lungs leaves smokers more susceptible to contracting the disease.

Quoting a World Health Organisation (WHO) study, he said that there is a two to four-fold increased risk for pulmonary and respiratory diseases in smokers compared to non-smokers.

This is also true for people who smoke hookah. In addition, the mouthpiece of the water pipe used in hookahs is often used by multiple people, which can lead to the transmission of viral and bacterial infections.

Past studies have shown that water pipes and mouthpieces have been implicated in an outbreak of pulmonary tuberculosis, the hepatitis-C virus, respiratory viruses and fungal infections.

Mr Saleem said that the coronavirus pandemic is an added cost to the existing health burden incurred by the government. Tobacco consumption, which increases the vulnerability of smokers, is an added liability.

He urged the government to take firm tobacco control measures such as increasing taxes on tobacco products to reduce consumption and the associated health risks, particularly among young people and the elderly.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2020