Tips for smokers to kick the habit despite the pandemic

Vagney Bradley
April 27, 2020
A hand rejects another hand holding an open pack of cigarettes
Some early studies have shown that cigarette smokers have higher death rates from COVID-19 than nonsmokers, making it that much more important to quit smoking. iStock

The stress of COVID-19 has many people feeling anxious. Smokers might find it hard to quit, and those who have recently stopped might find it easy to slip back into smoking again. 

Hollings Cancer Center researcher Michael Cummings, Ph.D., wants people to know that during these stressful times, it is especially worthwhile to try to get off of cigarettes.  

Some early studies of COVID-19-positive patients show that cigarette smokers have higher rates of death compared with nonsmokers.

“This finding is likely because smoking increases the risk of chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease that have been associated with increased mortality in those with COVID-19,” Cummings said.

Interestingly, Cummings also noted that several recent studies suggest that the risk of acquiring COVID-19 is unrelated to smoking status, for reasons that remain unknown.

Dr. Michael Cummings 
Dr. Michael Cummings encourages smokers to use time at home during the pandemic to focus on quitting smoking. Photo by Sarah Pack

Data shows an unexpected slightly lower risk of COVID-19 in patients who currently smoke. A recent study published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that 84% of COVID-19 cases were never smokers. Cummings points out that this finding shows a much higher percentage than would be expected.

Despite the surprising results, Cummings said the bottom line remains that it is not a good idea to continue to smoke.

Smoking increases one’s risk of getting cancer, heart disease and emphysema. In cancer patients, smoking increases the risk of developing complications from surgery, reduces the efficacy of some types of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and increases risks of developing a second primary tumor or cancer recurrence.

Quitting smoking improves outcomes for patients with heart disease; improves lung function in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a disease referred to as COPD; and can lower the risks for other health issues.

Benjamin Toll, Ph.D., director of the Hollings Tobacco Treatment Program, believes this is an essential time for people to quit smoking and improve their health.

“It seems clear that the COVID pandemic represents a watershed moment for tobacco treatment in which hopefully many people will take control of their lives by quitting smoking,” Toll said. “There is rock-solid evidence that quitting smoking will improve their overall health.”

During this time of high stress and anxiety, Cummings suggests that it is still a good idea to try to stop. He recommends when the urge to smoke strikes, smokers ought to distract themselves by drinking water, going for a walk or chewing gum until the desire to smoke passes.

“Just like we are sitting here in our homes to help slow the spread of COVID-19, counting one day at a time, the same approach can be used by smokers when it comes to overcoming the thought of not having cigarettes around,” Cummings said. “Take it an hour or a day at a time to get through it because this is a good time to make a lot of changes in one’s life, including getting off of cigarettes.”

FDA-approved medications for smoking cessation include combination nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches, lozenges and varenicline. Smokers can utilize services to help them quit such as MUSC’s Tobacco Treatment Program. Other helpful services include the toll-free South Carolina Tobacco Quitline—1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669)—and the government’s website for free advice and resources at: