Ban designated smoking areas in public places to curb Covid spread: Experts

With preventive healthcare taking the centre stage in the fight against coronavirus, citizens, scientists and politicians have called for abolishment of designated smoking areas (DSAs) in public places like hotels, airports and restaurants, which are not only a health threat to passive smokers, but also likely hotspots of virus transmission in the absence of Covid-19 appropriate behaviour.

While calling for a ban on such designated smoking spaces in the country, Raman Gangakhedkar, the C.G. Pandit National Chair at ICMR, said, “It has been seen that no safe distance norms are followed in these zones which are usually like smoke-filled chambers where people take off their masks and follow no social distancing norms. Hence, there are chances that the virus may remain airborne for a long period while smokers come and go, adding to the risk of transmission.”

“In the absence of Covid-19 safety norms, there is always a threat of transmission from such closed spaces, particularly at a time when we are facing the threat of the second wave of the pandemic,” he said.

“Also, new evidences show that the people with pre-existing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are more susceptible to becoming severely ill with Covid-19, an infectious disease that primarily attacks the lungs. Tobacco, being one of the causes behind these NCDs, indirectly puts the tobacco users and smokers at the risk of being affected by Covid-19. The death risk among such Covid-19 patients is two times higher than non-smokers. This just adds to the healthcare burden,” he added.

Gangakhedkar, who is the former head of epidemiology and infectious diseases, ICMR, and member of the national task force for Covid-19, was the face of the government’s press briefings when Covid-19 was at its peak. He was speaking at a webinar on ‘100 per cent smoke free public places: challenges and way ahead’, organised by SpeakIn, an online learning and speakers’ platform.

Expressing similar views, BJP national spokesperson Gopal Krishna Agarwal said, “In the wake of Covid-19, the importance of preventive healthcare has gained importance. Banning designated smoking places, which are health hazards for non-smokers, will be just one of the preventive measures towards good health in times of the pandemic.”

“Public opinion should also be taken on the matter, but as smoking in public places impacts he health of non-smokers, a law will have a deterrent impact on the violators. Those violating the law should be stringently punished. Also, surrogate advertisements of tobacco companies trying to influence adolescent and youth should be banned,” he said while exhorting the people to come together to support the tobacco ban to ensure 100 per cent smoke-free public places.

Nalini Satyanarayan, a victim of second-hand smoking and health activist, also said that eateries, specifically hotels, restaurants, bars and restaurants, should shut down moking zones which are risks to the numerous passive smokers as they get exposed to the smoke of cigarettes.

In India, smoking is banned in all public areas as per the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA), 2003. Section 4 of this Act prohibits smoking in any place to which the public has access. However, the Act presently allows smoking in certain public places like restaurants, hotels and airports, in designated smoking areas.

To plug the loopholes, the government has now proposed amendments in the existing law seeking a ban on designated smoking areas in public places and sale of loose cigarettes, keeping in mind the increasing number of tobacco related deaths.

Available researches suggest that it is not only smokers who are at higher risk of developing severe diseases as it weakens the immune system, there is no safe level of second hand smoke because exposure to second hand smoke increases the risk of lung cancer, asthma, pneumonia and other lung injuries, beyond Covid-19.

According to various statistics, smoking causes 80 per cent of deaths from lung cancer, bronchitis and emphysema, and 17 per cent of deaths from heart disease. More than one quarter of all cancer deaths can be attributed to smoking.