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Dr Aggrey Irons | COVID is no joke, it gets worse with smoke

Published:Saturday | May 30, 2020 | 12:17 AM

THIS YEAR marks 15 years since Jamaica acceded in 2005 to the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the only global health treaty.

Since its formation on World No Tobacco Day, May 31, 2002, the Jamaica Coalition for Tobacco Control (JCTC) has been a strong advocate for public-health policies that seek to protect Jamaica’s population from the ravages of tobacco and nicotine use. According to WHO statistics, eight million people die each year from tobacco use, all preventable deaths, and it is well known that tobacco is the only substance that, when used as intended, leads to the death of its users. In 2004, tobacco was responsible for 11 per cent of all non-communicable deaths and three per cent of communicable deaths in Jamaica (WHO, 2012). As we approach another World No Tobacco Day on May 31, the deadly impact of tobacco use on health is again brought into focus by the World Health Organization’s theme: ‘Protecting Youth from Industry Manipulation and Preventing Them From Tobacco and Nicotine Use’.

The tobacco industry markets its deadly products aggressively, more so in low- and middle-income countries, where 80 per cent of tobacco users live. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) kill more than 70 per cent of Jamaica’s population annually, and tobacco use is a risk factor for the four leading NCDs that affect the country’s population – cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes. It was this knowledge of the burden of tobacco use and exposure on morbidity and mortality that spurred the thrust for Jamaica to ratify the FCTC in 2005, becoming the 73rd country in the world to do so.

Since then, with consistent advocacy from the JCTC member bodies, including the Association of Consultant Physicians, Association of General Practitioners Jamaica Chapter, Caribbean College of Family Physicians, Diabetes Association of Jamaica, Heart Foundation of Jamaica, Jamaica Cancer Society, Jamaica Dental Association, Jamaica Psychiatric Association, and Nurses Association of Jamaica, Jamaica was able to implement the Public Health (Tobacco Control) Regulations in 2013. These regulations called for 100 per cent smoke-free public places and workplaces and graphic health warnings on all tobacco packets.


There have also been consistent increases in tobacco taxes, with consequent increases in tobacco prices, which has been demonstrated to be effective in reducing tobacco use. The most recent Jamaica Survey of Living Conditions (JSLC, 2017) showed that smoking is on the increase and that 17.2 per cent of the population 14 years and older currently smokes cigarettes, as compared to 14.7 per cent in 2016. E-cigarettes and other vaping products have become the latest instrument used by the tobacco industry to attract a younger crowd, and their use is now more common among 13- to 15-year-olds, with 11.7 per cent of students using them, compared to the 11.2 per cent of those who currently smoke cigarettes, according to the 2017 Global Youth Tobacco Survey.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has signalled a new reality for many, if not all, of us. Tobacco smoke contains a combination of tar, carbon monoxide, more than 7,000 chemicals, and radioactive compounds that cause damage to multiple organs of the body. In relation to COVID-19, tobacco use impairs lung function, and studies conducted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic reveal that smokers who have been infected with the coronavirus are at greater risk of developing severe disease compared to non-smokers. Many of those who have died from the illness suffered underlying ailments such as hypertension.

While the world remains gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been raging for months, globally, tobacco companies have been exploiting the crisis to covertly market their deadly products by aligning themselves with positive public-health messaging. In addition to recommending that persons “stay at home” and purchase their products, one message has suggested a wholesale switch from smoking to vaping, which would supposedly help to reduce the likelihood of respiratory illness in the future. A trip into history will show that exploiting a crisis to market their harmful products is a strategy that has been used by tobacco companies for decades. The tobacco industry uses manipulative tactics to market its products, including making them sleek and attractive with flavours that young people like; films and TV programmes aimed toward youth; using social-media influencers to promote their products; promoting and selling their products near locations and events frequented by young people; and promoting their products, such as e-cigarettes, as reduced harm.

Preventing Jamaicans from becoming addicted and allowing their dreams to go up in smoke is the mission of the JCTC. The JCTC urges everyone not to be deceived by tobacco-industry tactics and to refrain from all forms of tobacco and nicotine use. Remember that smoking kills, and life is too precious to go up in smoke.

Dr Aggrey Irons is consultant psychiatrist and chair of the Jamaica Coalition for Tobacco Control. Send feedback to