By John Cassim (Anadolu Agency)

HARARE, Zimbabwe

Rising awareness in Zimbabwe about COVID-19 complications has prompted smokers of tobacco and other substances to quit, health experts in the Southern African nation confirm.

“With the advent of COVID-19 and the health awareness that was broadcast, it became clearer that there are certain people who are at more risk of succumbing to COVID-19,” Dr. Anesu Chinoperekwei, a Harare-based psychiatrist, told Anadolu Agency on World Smoking Cessation Day on Feb. 9.

“Among those are people with chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, and asthma,” said Chinoperekwei.

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“Those who smoke are also at risk,” she said, noting that many smokers are worried about the future consequences of their habit in relation to the coronavirus.

Jacob Mushowe, 40, from Harare stopped smoking tobacco in August 2020 when he learned that smokers faced a 40-50% higher risk of developing severe symptoms or dying from the virus.

He started smoking at age 17 and had never come across any strong anti-smoking messages until the coronavirus was declared a pandemic.

“I lost an uncle during the first wave of COVID-19 in Zimbabwe in 2020. He used to drink and smoke a lot. I took some personal interest in understanding how risky it was to smoke in this COVID-19 era and decided to quit, though gradually,” he told Anadolu Agency.

Pearson Mudungwe, a 49-year-old Harare-based vendor, said that he too was in the process of quitting, though he lacks support during cravings.

“I was diagnosed with tuberculosis in February 2020, and that was the time when COVID-19 had just started ravaging most countries globally. Owing to TB and COVID-19, smoking placed me at greater risk of dying from the virus,” he said.

Support system for quitting

According to Chinoperekwei, when people smoke, they take in nicotine, a stimulant and drug that have effects on the brain and can cause euphoria and mood changes, as well as shifts in behavior, when a person is lacking it.

“Usually, smoking tobacco is used as a gateway to drinking alcohol or the use of other substances, although some just smoke tobacco alone. Mostly, it’s anxiety or depressive disorders which we deal with when one decides to quit smoking,” she added.

Health experts say cravings and anxiety leading to mood changes such as anger are very common when a person quits smoking. Hence, there is a need for support mechanisms at health facilities.

“I don’t know of any tobacco-targeted support system. But, we do have drug abuse facilities at both public and private health institutions,” she said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Alex Gasasira, Zimbabwe’s country representative of the World Health Organization (WHO), urged countries to coordinate their activities.

“Countries should coordinate the activities of their health, trade, and finance ministries in order to ensure that they don’t undertake trade and investment obligations that unduly conflict with their health goals, including their capacity to effectively regulate tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy food products,” he told Anadolu Agency.

As part of a smoking cessation campaign, Commit to Quit, the WHO is partnering with messaging apps Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and AI company Soul Machines to reach billions with free ads promoting quitting tobacco, he added .

Gasasira explained that Zimbabwe’s 2018 Public Health Act includes provisions to take action to increase public awareness about the risk conditions of non-communicable diseases and to promote action to minimize these risk factors.

Smoking during COVID-19 pandemic

Gasasira also warned that smoking is a risk factor not only for COVID-19 but non-communicable diseases, too.

“Smokers face a 40-50% higher risk of developing severe diseases and death from COVID-19,” he told Anadolu Agency.

“Tobacco kills up to half of its users, kills more than 8 million people each year and more than 7 million of these deaths are the results of direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to secondhand smoke,” the local WHO chief said.

Over 80% of the world’s 1.3 billion tobacco users live in low- and middle-income countries, such as Zimbabwe.

The country has signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

The FCTC is a legally binding treaty that requires countries to implement evidence-based measures to reduce tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke.

Meanwhile, some analysts say Zimbabwe is dragging its feet as it is one of Africa’s leading tobacco producers and pockets nearly a billion dollars annually through tobacco exports.