Smokers were affected in a variety of ways by the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown. While nearly a third of smokers interviewed for a national survey said they reduced their smoking or considered quitting because they were afraid Covid-19 would harm them, another one-third increased their smoking due to “loneliness” and “boredom” brought on by the lockdown.

In a country where tobacco use kills 1.35 million people each year, the survey found that many teenagers continued to smoke out of “curiosity” and “social influence.”

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According to survey results released ahead of World No Tobacco Day on Tuesday, 47% of respondents smoked several times per day despite being aware of the habit’s link to severe lung diseases.

Tobacco use is known to kill one out of every three users and shorten one’s life by a decade.

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Executive director Sanjeev Mantri of ICICI Lombard General Insurance which conducted the multi-city survey told the Times of India – “About 92% knew of graphic warnings on cigarette packs and 73% knew smoking could cause lung cancer.”

According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey India, 2016-17, nearly 267 million adults (15 years and older) in India (29%of all adults) use tobacco.

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The most common type of tobacco used in India is smokeless tobacco, and popular products include khaini, gutkha, betel quid with tobacco, and zarda.

In recent years, smoking has become more popular among Indian youth and women. E-cigarettes are more popular among women, despite being banned in some states.

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Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, an oral cancer surgeon at Tata Memorial Centre in Parel and an anti-tobacco activist, believes there is no denying that young people are smoking in greater numbers.

He continued – “While it is against the law to sell cigarettes near schools, not a single FIR has been filed in the past seven years to discourage such vendors,” he said. The government machinery, he said, must try and reduce the initiation of smoking in youngsters. Only 3% to 5% of smokers manage to quit the habit, so focusing on quitting tobacco clinics will not have as much result as preventing people from taking up the habit”. 

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According to Dr Chaturvedi, many people believe that their health insurance will protect them from the harmful effects of smoking.

He stated – “But I have patients whose claims were rejected because if you smoke, how can you be reimbursed for cancer, stroke or heart attack that are likely to have been caused by the habit.”

Mantri said the effect of Covid on smoking needs to be looked at as it could help come up with public health strategies to reduce the habit.