The Anti Tobacco Network Botswana (ATN, Botswana) recognizes that tobacco use is an immediate threat to the control of COVID-19 spread, and calls on Government to stop the sales to tobacco products during the state of public emergency to save lives.
We note and commend the Government for approving a regulation prohibiting the importation into Botswana of tobacco or tobacco-related products during the state of public emergency.
This action is indeed a testament of the cardinal recognition by the Government and confirmation to the whole nation that tobacco and tobacco related products such as e-cigarettes, hubbly bubbly, (Shisha), vapes are non-essential commodities and that tobacco is a non-essential business that cannot be allowed to continue during the state of public emergency.
ATN Botswana however, urges the Government as a matter of urgency to issue further regulation to suspend all sale of tobacco and tobacco related products during the COVID-19 pandemic period.
Such a ban will reduce easy access to tobacco products and therefore save lives of many people.
People who smoke or use other tobacco products should be assisted to quit in our health facilities.
Our urgent call to ban the sale of tobacco products during this time of public emergency is informed by scientific evidence that smoking damages human lungs and other body organs.
Smoking also destroys the immune system hence weakening a smoker’s responsiveness to infections.
As COVID -19 is primarily a disease affecting the respiratory system, smokers are therefore more vulnerable to developing severe COVID-19 which may result in prolonged hospitalization under life support machines in intensive care units (ICU) or death. Persons with long standing chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are also susceptible to severe COVID -19.
There is compelling evidence from previous studies that smokers are twice more likely than non-smokers to contract influenza and have more severe symptoms.
While smokers were also noted to have higher mortality in the previous Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (MERS-CoV) outbreak, emerging data from patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19 show higher percentages of current and former smokers among patients that have needed ICU support, mechanical ventilation or those that have died.
The findings show that a higher percentage of smokers are among the severe cases.
We argue that tobacco products are not essential commodities and their sales must therefore be banned.
Allowing tobacco sales will expose smokers to COVID-19 who will repeatedly be going to the shops to purchase tobacco products.
In addition, Government should completely ban the sale and use of the hubbly Bubbly (Shisha) which is usually smoked in groups using shared mouth pieces that are a channel for transmission of COVID -19 and other respiratory diseases including tuberculosis.
During such smoking sessions, it is practically impossible to maintain social distance to avoid transmission of COVID -19 as well.
It must be remembered that the sharing of tobacco products by its users pose the danger of spreading COVID-19 through contaminated saliva.
Several countries in Africa including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Gambia have banned sale of use of shisha.
Recently, 17 countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region have banned hubbly Bubbly (Shisha) as a measure to control spread of COVID -19.
South Africa banned the sale of tobacco products during its 21-day lockdown.
Botswana can join these countries, to further solidify its stance that tobacco is not an essential commodity and preventing its use can save lives.
We further call on the Government to strictly enforce the provisions of section 13 of the Control of Smoking Act which bans the advertisement of tobacco products by the tobacco industry.
ATN Botswana has noted with concern that recently, there has been an upsurge in advertisement, especially banners posted by irresponsible companies or individuals that boldly advertise and promote tobacco products in the face of COVID-19 and in full disregard of existing law prohibition of advertising and promotion of tobacco products in Botswana.
Such adverts even inviting people to smoke shops when the Government of Botswana is urging people to keep physical distance, will negatively affect the effort to fight COVID-19 and also defeat other efforts by government to reduce tobacco use which is a known leading risk factor for non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
By Professor Bontle Mbongwe, Executive Director, Anti Tobacco Network