NICD director cautions against smoking, says getting evidence of links to 'severe' Covid-19 is hard

  • Professor Lucille Blumberg has said while there are no "good studies" to link smoking to severe Covid-19, there could possibly still be a relationship. 
  • This is because of the impact smoking is known to have on the lungs and lung disease.
  • Government banned the sale of tobacco products in March and faced a few court battles since.

There is no direct evidence that links smoking with severe Covid-19 cases. However, given tobacco's impact on the lungs, this could be possible, according to Professor Lucille Blumberg, deputy director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

LIVE | All the latest coronavirus and lockdown updates

In a conversation with NICD communications head Sinenhlanhla Jimoh on Friday, Blumberg explained that given smoking's impact on the lungs "there must be some sort of a link" between the two.

The conversation was broadcast live on the NICD's Facebook page.

ANALYSIS | Why is government not collecting statistics on smoking and Covid-19?

"There is no direct and very good information or good studies to link smoking with severe Covid-19, but if [you] consider chronic lung illness and smoking and chronic lung problems are very closely associated, there must be some sort of link," Blumberg said.

She added that given the evidence for smoking and lung disease, "it's not a good idea."

"We can't get good information because unfortunately if you ask somebody who is in hospital waiting for oxygen, 'Do you smoke?', the answer is always 'No' or 'I stopped', but often they stopped yesterday.

"So, we cannot provide that information but I think looking at the evidence between smoking and chronic lung disease, it's not a good idea."

Speaking to News24 later, Blumberg expanded on her comments, based on the damage smoking causes and what scientists know about Covid-19 at the moment, it's not advisable to risk putting one's lungs under extra strain by smoking.

Government has banned the sale of tobacco products during the lockdown, citing a link between smoking and Covid-19.

It said the ban was to reduce potential strain on the health system and saves lives.

During a court case between the minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs and the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (FITA), the minister cited international studies on the relationship between smoking and Covid-19.

READ | FITA's court bid to have cigarette ban overturned, dismissed with costs

This evidence suggested a possible increase in the risk of transmission of Covid-19 for smokers, who may also risk suffering from more severe symptoms.

The Gauteng High Court in Pretoria ruled in favour of government in the case, dismissing FITA's application with costs.

However, government now faces a second legal battle brought by British American Tobacco South Africa (Batsa) and nine others.

FITA has also approached the high court to appeal the previous ruling.

Judgment in the appeal bid has been reserved.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect additional comment by Professor Blumberg.

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