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Quitting smoking in the pit of a pandemic?

Mayo specialists encourage smokers to give quitting a try ahead of the Great American Smokeout.

Smoke Smoking Cigarettes
(Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay)

So, let me get this straight. I can't gather with friends and family for Thanksgiving. Must wear a mask. Must maintain my distance.

And, cooped up in my house and with a web of do's and don'ts strangling my life, you want me to quit smoking, one of the few pleasures I have left.

It may be a lot to ask. But with the Great American Smokeout coming up on Thursday, when smokers nationwide are encouraged to take a first step toward a smoke-free life, Mayo Clinic medical professionals are recommending just that.

J. Taylor Hays, director of the Nicotine Dependence Center at Mayo Clinic, and Jenny Prinsen, a nurse practitioner at Mayo Clinic Health Systems in La Crosse, Wis., held a media briefing via Zoom to speak about the health risks associated with smoking and vaping and its relation to COVID-19.

It may sound counterintuitive to a smoker who has tried to quit, but experts say that quitting smoking over the long haul is an effective way to reduce anxiety and stress in a person's life. Hays said studies show it has the same impact as antidepressant therapy on moderate depression.


Hays said he believes cigarette smoking is a risk factor for getting COVID-19. But the data is yet unclear, and it can take years for scientific certainty to be reached on such issues. Some preliminary studies have suggested that smoking is a "protective device" against COVID-19 infection.

Hays said he will "eat his hat" if that turns out to be true.

Yet data from China suggests that smokers were less represented among hospital admissions for COVID-19 during the country's pandemic peak than non-smokers. Additional data from France showed something similar — that smokers were less likely to test positive for the virus than non-smokers during that country's peak outbreak.

Hays called the studies "flawed." The problem with the data, he said, is that it relies on pre-publication manuscripts and online journals that have not yet been peer-reviewed. There could be other explanations to account for the correlation. One could be that people with chronic lung disease are more cautious and thus not being infected as often as others.

A more systematic study will likely show that smokers are probably more susceptible to the disease and more severe infection, but "that day has yet to come," he said.

Experts say anti-smoking efforts over the past half-century have been among the nation's greatest public health successes. Smoking prevalence among adults was about 40% in the 1960s (among men it was higher, at 50%). Today, it's 15% or lower in most states.

Vaping is more of a "mixed picture." There are an estimated 5 million users in middle and high school nationwide, and the trend is rising among youth.

Health officials say the point of the Great American Smokeout is to encourage people to set a date for trying to quit. It could be a New Year's resolution or a birthday. The point is to make the attempt.


"It comes back to identifying what that trigger is," Prinsen said. "If stress is the trigger, how can we deal with stress without using the cigarette? Go for a walk, take deep breaths, call a friend, replacement therapy. It's such a stressful time because of the pandemic, as well as politics. But a cigarette doesn't have to be first response to that stress."

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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