Troubling data from Italy is prompting Cuomo to ban cigarette sales for six weeks

Despite a longtime campaign finance relationship between Albany Democrats and Big Tobacco, Cuomo is taking measures that public health experts are calling “politically courageous.”

Stunning data from Italy is prompting Governor Andrew Cuomo to endorse a temporary ban on the sale of combustible cigarettes for the duration of the Coronavirus outbreak, expected to last for six weeks.

Italian doctors are telling the World Health Organization that smokers who are infected with COVID-19 are far more likely to develop serious complications than are non-smokers.  Of those smokers who develop serious complications, a higher proportion requires a ventilator, and those smokers who are put on ventilators have dramatically higher rates of death.

It’s been widely reported that Cuomo has a Monday morning announcement planned at the State Capitol, but the ban is not is expected to take effect until Monday night at 11:59 pm. 

Dr. Howard Zucker, the Commissioner of Health, is said to have discussed the measure with the Governor privately earlier this week. The action could reduce the State’s Coronavirus death count by thousands of smokers and non-smokers.

In Italy, the death rate from COVID-19 is approaching 10% of those who test positive, and doctors there are now saying that the deaths are highly correlated to cigarette use.  Smoking heavily is commonplace among Italian men — at rates remarkably higher than most other countries — which has been causing deadly shortages of ventilators, particularly in Northern Italy where smoking is most culturally prevalent.

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.

It was observed earlier this month that women in Italy are better able to overcome the virus than men — but Italian doctors now believe that the statistical difference is attributable to individual smoking habits. 

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.

“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 that have been shared with select local media outlets, presumably to soften the announcement planned 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.

This is not the first time that administration has considered tighter restrictions on the tobacco industry, which donates heavily to Cuomo’s various gubernatorial election campaigns.  Commissioner Zucker has long advocated for additional restrictions on combustible cigarette sales, which causes more than 443,000 deaths annually.  That’s more than murder, car accidents, alcohol, opioids, drug use, gun deaths, and suicide — combined.

COVID-19 is expected to cause 81,000 deaths. 

Zucker argues that 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 — expected to hit the State only 20 days from today.

The Governor hopes that temporarily banning combustible cigarette sales during the outbreak will mean that ex-smokers’ respiratory systems will make significant recovery while COVID-19 cases are peaking in New York City.

“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.

Public health experts insist the ban will save the lives of many thousands of New Yorkers who do not smoke, because of the increased availability of ventilators for the elderly, those undergoing cancer treatment, those with COPD and chronic respiratory problems, HIV patients, and those with autoimmune diseases. 

Those high-risk groups are more likely to need ventilators to overcome the virus.

Governor Andrew Cuomo applauding the work of the New York National Gaurd and the Army Corps of Engineers.  At his order, they were able to erect a temporary 1,000-bed hospital inside the Jacob Javits Convention Center in a matter of days.


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