Public health officials close to Governor Andrew Cuomo are assuring key staffers that the administration’s temporary six-week ban on combustible cigarettes — expected to be announced Monday morning and take effect at 11:59 pm Monday night — will include a delay to new restrictions on e-vapors. Those restrictions were announced last month and were expected to go into effect this week.
The regulation would have made it harder for smokers to access electronic alternatives to combustible cigarettes, ahead of the State’s devastating COVID-19 crisis — which is expected to take a particularly harsh toll on smokers.
The temporary ban on the sale of combustible cigarettes is intended to reduce the State’s COVID-19 death count, sources familiar with Cuomo’s thinking tell The Chronicle. In recent days, new data out of Italy suggest that the nation’s whopping Coronavirus death rate — now approaching 10% of those who test positive — is highly correlated to cigarette use. Italian men smoke cigarettes at rates that far outpace most other developed countries, and the extreme shortage of ventilators there has been the cause of death for tens of thousands of smokers.
Cuomo is also considering the suspension of sales taxes on nicotine patches and lozenges and plans to ask executives at Altria to significantly reduce prices on those products for the same six week period.
Those firms are expected to comply with the private request, and President Donald J. Trump is said to have offered the Governor assurances on a recent phone call that he would “follow up the request, if necessary.”
The Commissioner of Public Health, Dr. Howard Zucker, will be rolling out a major public service announcement this week, warning smokers of the increased risk of death during the outbreak, in an attempt to implore smokers to quit immediately. Filming of that public service announcement is expected late Sunday evening.
According to Italy’s National Health Institute, smokers with COVID-19 were one-third more likely to have a serious clinical situation than non-smokers. Half of these smokers required a ventilator.
COVID-19 kills its victims by compromising the respiratory system and reducing oxygen levels in the blood. Regular cigarette use damages the airways and small air sacs in the lungs. Combustible cigarettes weaken smokers’ lungs by filling them with smoke and tar.
For many weeks, it was observed that women in Italy are better able to overcome the virus than men. Italian doctors now believe that the statistical difference is attributable to smoking-related gender norms, which are particularly pronounced in the northern regions of the country.
“When a smoker contracts COVID-19, he or she will be far more likely to suffer respiratory system failure, thereby exacerbating New York’s ventilator shortage,” Cuomo plans to say in remarks prepared for Monday. “Fortunately, medical science informs us that ex-smokers experience significant recovery in lung function and oxygen absorption as soon as they quit smoking.”
Former smokers recover 30% of their lung function just two weeks after quitting.
“Any ex-smoker can tell you how, just days after quitting, they were noticeably less out of breath after walking up a flight of stairs. Personally, I have heard hundreds of these stories,” he writes in draft remarks that were made available to The Chronicle.
Zucker discussed the issue with him privately earlier this week. The sale of combustible cigarettes causes more than 443,000 deaths annually — more deaths each year than from murder, car accidents, alcohol or drug use, suicides, and HIV combined.
It’s estimated that 81,000 people will die from COVID-19.
A ban on cigarette sales for the duration of the outbreak will save thousands of lives and will reduce the State’s shortage of ventilators, perhaps by several thousand during its peak — which is projected to hit the State 20 days from today.
If New York takes immediate action and temporarily bans combustible cigarette sales during this public health crisis, it’s thought that ex-smokers’ respiratory systems will make significant recovery at the very same time that COVID-19 cases are peaking in New York.
“This will save lives, and not just the lives of smokers,” the Governor plans to say. “Every former smoker that gets sick, but does not need a ventilator, means one more ventilator is available to keep our aging parents and grandparents alive.”
“Importantly, we must also recognize that failing to temporarily ban combustible cigarettes immediately will cause a disproportionate increase in COVID-19 fatalities in minority communities, given the higher prevalence of immuno-deficiencies in these communities,” he plans to note.
The Governor’s supporters argue that it is more important now than ever to address the public health cost of combustible cigarettes — not just to save the lives of smokers, but to save the lives of all New Yorkers by mitigating the severity of a ventilator shortage. That shortage is expected to impact high-needs populations worst, including those with immune-deficiencies, the elderly, and chronic respiratory illness.