It’s one of those things you hear that is so preposterous you just assume it’s fake news.
I’m talking about the assertion that smokers get special preference for COVID-19 vaccinations in New Jersey.
When I first heard that, I dismissed it as one of those internet rumors. But then the other day I decided to register online for the vaccine. The online form asked the usual dumb questions. After I reported that I am male, for example, I also had to tell them I’m not pregnant.
I could live with that sort of thing – but not with what I saw when I checked the list of health conditions that permit a person to get the vaccine with the same priority as those over 65. Cancer and kidney disease? Fine. But at the bottom of the list appears the word “smoking.”
The rationale for that classification comes from the CDC and its assertion that smokers face far worse health outcomes if they catch COVID-19.
But that’s a good reason for them to stop smoking. If I had my druthers, anyone who checked that box would be told to give up the habit or go to the end of the line.
If John Ioannidis had his druthers, he’d go a lot further. He’d ban cigarettes altogether.
Ioannidis is a physician and statistician at Stanford University who was once described as “one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research.”
Last week Ioannidis had an article in the British medical journal the Lancet headlined “Does the COVID-19 pandemic provide an opportunity to eliminate the tobacco industry?”
Ioannidis hopes so. He argues that cigarettes kill way more people than COVID does. If we’re going to be shutting bars, restaurants, etc., to prevent deaths from a disease that attacks the lungs, he says, then we shouldn’t permit the sale of the No. 1 cause of preventable lung damage.
“Even under the most pessimistic projections, COVID-19 fatalities are well below the perpetuated burden of tobacco deaths,” Ioannidis writes. “Moreover, COVID-19 kills mostly older people with multiple underlying diseases, whereas half of tobacco deaths occur in people aged 30–69 years.”
One of those underlying diseases is COPD (chronic obstructive and pulmonary disease), which is caused primarily by smoking. People with COPD also get preference for COVID vaccinations in New Jersey. But in their case it’s too late to prevent it.
But under the current system, if a 35-year-old smoker decided to quit smoking then he’d lose his priority for the vaccine.
That makes no sense.
And if our governor is going to issue emergency orders banning and restricting activities, then why not include the most deadly activity of them all?
When I emailed Ioannidis that question, he replied, “Indeed, smoking is one of the most serious, devastating health conditions, and it would be great if a governor has the courage to be the first to ban cigarettes sales in his/her state. Someone needs to do the first move, others will follow.”
If Murphy wants to help smokers, then it follows that he should be that governor. I sent Phil Murphy’s people an email asking whether he would. They didn’t get back to me in time for deadline. So I couldn’t get the governor’s views on the doctor’s plan for phasing out tobacco:
“While setting a specific future date when sales would be banned, during the transition period sales could be heavily taxed (much more than they are today) and sales could be allowed only through prescribed government-run shops,” Ioannidis told me.
I couldn’t help but notice that the call for tobacco to be sold only in “prescribed government-run shops” sounds a lot like the system New Jersey now has for medicinal marijuana. Meanwhile a bill now on Murphy’s desk would create government-run shops for all adult pot users.
Marijuana is actually safer because it can be consumed without the threat of lung damage. The state’s leading authority on marijuana – Ed “NJ Weedman” Forchion – tells me that women actually prefer the edible forms of pot he sells in his semi-legal dispensary in Trenton.
“They don’t like all that smoke,” Forchion said.
Neither do I, which is why I don’t smoke. But maybe I should take it up – for my health, of course.
The state vaccination site doesn’t distinguish between smoking pot and smoking tobacco.
So if I were a pot smoker, I could check that box and get the same privileges as a cigarette smoker.
But don’t tell the potheads I said that.
The line is long enough already.