Smoking rooms may raise risk of Covid-19 transmission, doctors say

Doctors have expressed concerns that small, poorly ventilated designated smoking areas can accelerate the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19) disease.

The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) came into effect across India on October 2, 2008. It prohibits smoking in public places but allows it in designated smoking rooms in restaurants, hotels, and airports.

Covid-19 is mainly transmitted through respiratory droplets either inhaled by another person standing in close proximity or through the droplets that remain on surfaces and enter the other person’s system when they touch the surface and then their eyes, nose, or mouth. Masks can help in preventing the emission as well as inhalation of these respiratory droplets thereby reducing the risk of contracting the disease.

Although airborne transmission through aerosolised or very small droplets has not been established clearly, the World Health Organisation says this might happen in crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces.

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“In most countries, smoking is banned in public places except the smoking zones as in India. However, we do not see too many of the smoking zones here, and the ones that are there in some hotels and restaurants are like small glass boxes with little to no ventilation. This, of course, increases the risk of Covid-19 transmission. When people go to smoke, they take off their masks. They touch their lips with their fingers, and they are likely to talk. Also, in an enclosed space like that the virus may remain airborne for a long period while smokers come and go adding to the risk of transmission,” said Dr Vikas Maurya, director of the department of pulmonology and sleep disorders at Fortis hospital, Shalimar Bagh.

He suggested having open designated zones for smoking instead.

The prevalence of tobacco use has decreased by six percentage points from 34.6%, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) 1 conducted in 2009-10, to 28.6% as per GATS 2 conducted in 2016-17. In the 12 years of the COTPA law, over Rs 37.3 crore have been collected as fines from over 2.6 million people for violating it, according to government data.

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“The implementation of the no-smoking [in public] rules show the government’s commitment towards tobacco control. However, COTPA presently allows smoking in certain public places in designated smoking areas. We should abolish all designated smoking areas to ensure a 100% smoke-free environment as most of these areas are rarely compliant with COTPA requirements and put our public at a great health risk from exposure to second-hand smoke,” said Dr Harit Chaturvedi, chairman, Max Institute of Cancer Care.

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