Albany politicos are abuzz over an impending six-week ban on the sale of cigarettes, and some are speculating aloud that Big Tobacco — and their powerful Albany lobbyists — are, as we speak, in the process of squashing that policy initiative, which is expected to come Monday morning.
There has been a debate raging behind the scenes this weekend inside Governor Andrew Cuomo‘s executive chambers over the ban, which is still expected to take effect late Monday night.
On one side of the debate are the Governor’s public health advisors, including Howard Zucker, who are pushing for an outright ban on those sales for the duration of the Coronavirus outbreak, given COVID-19’s stunning fatality rates among smokers in Northern Italy.
New data suggests that smokers who are infected with COVID-19 are far more likely to develop serious complications than non-smokers — and, of those smokers who develop serious complications, a higher proportion requires a ventilator, and that group has dramatically higher rates of death.
Others in Cuomo’s inner circle, including Giorgio DeRosa, are generally supportive of the temporary ban on in-store sales but want the Governor to temporarily suspend the State’s prohibition on mail-order sales. DeRosa’s logic is simple: for smokers who physically can’t quit, it’s better to allow for mail-order sales for the duration of the six-week ban rather than to prompt nicotine addicts to travel to Connecticut or New Jersey.
Could Big Tobacco win again — even in the middle of a global respiratory pandemic? The industry has contributed heavily to both the Republican and Democratic caucuses of the State Legislature, and the Democrats hope that the industry will help them retain their majority in the Senate chamber — but that prospect was put into jeopardy following Cuomo’s hurried ban on alternatives to combustable tobacco.
The Governor has been allowing senior figures in his inner circle to debate the topic fiercely but privately since early last week, when doctors’ groups across the State began raising concerns. The administration is currently crafting a policy to mitigate COVID-19’s death count among smokers, who are among the most badly impacted by the virus.
Cuomo has privately asked Board members at Altria to slash prices on nicotine patches, lozenges, gums, and other smoking cessation products for the duration of the six-week ban. In that scenario, Cuomo would suspend the State sales tax on those product categories to further drive down prices.
It’s not entirely clear whether Altria was agreeable to the Governor’s request, but Cuomo’s political staff are confident that President Donald Trump will follow up the request with Altria privately or, perhaps, in the context of the Defense Production Act.
“The Governor is going to do everything he can to help smokers quit immediately, given the lethal risk of the addiction over the next several weeks and perhaps months,” a source familiar with his thinking explains. “If you are smoking cigarettes right now, then you either have a death wish or are so deeply addicted that you’re in need of help, and that’s what the Governor is trying to do.”
“Addicts don’t love cigarettes so much that they want to kill themselves over the habit. They are addicted — they want to quit but they can’t — that’s what addiction is, and Governor Cuomo has been the voice in the room that refuses to give up on that risk group,” he adds.
Included in the new public health strategy will be a formal delay of new regulations on e-vapors that were announced last month and scheduled to take effect this week. Those electronic cigarettes are marketed to help smokers wane themselves from cigarettes. The technology is 95% safer for users than combustible cigarettes, despite concerns that black market cannabis oils may have the potential to cause harm.
According to Italy’s National Health Institute, smokers with COVID-19 were one-third more likely to have a serious clinical situation than non-smokers. Half of these smokers required a ventilator. Italy’s Coronavirus death rate is fast approaching 10% of those who test positive, and Italian doctors are now saying that the deaths they are seeing are highly correlated to cigarette use.
For many weeks, it was observed that women in Italy are better able to overcome the virus than men. Italian doctors now believe that the statistical difference is attributable to smoking-related gender norms.
COVID-19 kills its victims by compromising the respiratory system and reducing oxygen levels in the blood. Regular cigarette use damages the airways and small air sacs in the lungs. Combustible cigarettes weaken smokers’ lungs by filling them with smoke and tar.
“When a smoker contracts COVID-19, he or she will be far more likely to suffer respiratory system failure, thereby exacerbating New York’s ventilator shortage,” Cuomo plans to say in remarks shared with The Inquizitor. “Fortunately, medical science informs us that ex-smokers experience significant recovery in lung function and oxygen absorption as soon as they quit smoking.”
Former smokers recover 30% of their lung function just two weeks after quitting.
“Any ex-smoker can tell you how, just days after quitting, they were noticeably less out of breath after walking up a flight of stairs. Personally, I have heard hundreds of these stories,” he writes in draft remarks prepared for Monday.
Commissioner Zucker has long advocated for additional restrictions on combustible cigarette sales, which causes more than 443,000 deaths annually — more deaths each year than from murder, car accidents, alcohol, opioids, drug use, gun deaths, and suicides combined.
Zucker argues that a ban on cigarette sales for the duration of the outbreak will save thousands of lives and will reduce the State’s shortage of ventilators, perhaps by several thousand during its peak — expected to hit the State only 20 days from today.
It is hoped that temporarily banning combustible cigarette sales during the public health crisis will mean that ex-smokers’ respiratory systems will make significant recovery at the very same time that COVID-19 cases are peaking in New York.
“This will save lives, and not just the lives of smokers,” the Governor plans to say. “Every former smoker that gets sick, but does not need a ventilator, means one more ventilator is available to keep our aging parents and grandparents alive.”
“Importantly, we must also recognize that failing to temporarily ban combustible cigarettes immediately will cause a disproportionate increase in COVID-19 fatalities in minority communities, given the higher prevalence of immune deficiencies in these communities,” he plans to note.
Cuomo believes that the ban will save the lives of many thousands of New Yorkers who do not smoke, because of the increased availability of ventilators for the elderly, those undergoing cancer treatment, those with COPD and chronic respiratory problems, HIV patients, and those with autoimmune diseases — all of whom are more likely to need ventilators to overcome the virus.
The temporary ban will be on the sale, not the consumption of combustible tobacco, and is expected to take effect at 11:59 pm on Monday.
It’s unclear when price cuts on nicotine patches, lozenges, and gums will take effect, but the Governor is privately expecting that to happen in a matter of days.