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Published on June 16, 2020

There’s never been a better time to quit smoking

COVID Quit Smoking

Between the stress of the daily news and the boredom of self-quarantining, it’s been a tough few months for anyone who’s been thinking of giving up smoking. But there’s never a better day than today, said Jeffrey J. Spillane, MD, FACS, a general and thoracic surgeon based at Southeastern Surgical Associates in Hyannis.

“A lot of people have used these past few months as an opportunity to reboot, and I have, for sure,” he said. “It’s been a reminder that life is short, and this is an opportunity to make some changes to improve our health.”

Quitting cigarettes and other tobacco products has never been more important, with the coronavirus still circulating, he said.

While data is still limited, one study in China found that smokers were 14 times as likely to reach advanced stages of COVID-19 than non-smokers.

“The thing with COVID is that people are dying from respiratory failure. The lung damage is significant from COVID, and if you start with damaged lungs, then it's worse,” said Dr. Spillane.

But it’s never too late to stop or cut down on smoking, he said.

When it comes to giving up cigarettes, “baby steps are okay,” he said. “Giving them up completely is really hard to do. But it doesn't have to be 100 percent. If you smoke a pack a day, you can go to a half pack and that is so much healthier."

Nicotine patches and Nicorette gum are available over the counter and help some people, he said. “That gives you a little bit of nicotine, but you're not putting that in your lungs. You can also try substituting a Tootsie Pop for a cigarette. Anything you can do to bring the number down on a daily basis is good.”

Lung damage is accumulative with every cigarette, he stressed.

“By cutting back, you're preventing more damage from being done. Can some of the lung damage be reversed? Yes, a walking program and a high-protein diet and healthy living can definitely improve the situation.”

Lung damage from smoking can be measured in pack years, he said. If you smoke a pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years, you're a 30-pack-year person.

“When you're 18 years old and you're smoking a pack a day, you're still hurting your lungs but you're not going to feel it. But the lung damage is starting. Somewhere around 50 to 60 pack years, the cancer risk goes way up.”

Seen in a CAT scan, the lung damage from smoking looks a lot like COVID lung injuries, he said. “The leaves on a tree exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, and our lungs do the opposite,” he said. “When your leaves get brown, that's when you're seeing problems. A high percentage of the people who are not taking care of their lungs are going to have issues.”

For information about smoking cessation programs, Dr. Spillane recommended the American Lung Association and a Massachusetts quit smoking site.