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Old foe, new challenge: COVID-19 sharpens our focus on tobacco

Erling Donnelly
Head of Oncology, Pfizer UK

1st August 2020

Erling Donnelly PhD, UK Oncology Lead, reflects on the continued impact of smoking on the health of UK citizens and the need for us to support those quitting in response to COVID-19.


As Big Ben chimed on January 1st and we ushered in a new decade, few could have predicted that 2020 would be shaped so profoundly by the global health emergency that we are now living through. Nor could we have predicted the unprecedented impact the pandemic would have on peoples’ lives and the economy.

Around the world more than 650,000 lives have been lost and we’ve heard countless heart-wrenching stories of people being unable to sit at the bedsides of loved ones when they needed it most.1

In the face of these terrible consequences, and working in oncology to support the thousands of cancer patients across the UK whose prognoses may look considerably worse due to the impact of COVID-19, I've been reflecting on what more we can do to support those in greatest need.

And, today, on World Lung Cancer Day, it's important to consider an old foe – smoking - even as we tackle newer global health challenges.

There can be no doubt that we have collectively made great strides in bringing down the number of smokers in the UK.2 It’s a phenomenal public health success story when you consider that nearly half the adult population smoked in 1974 compared with around one in seven now.2 I was pleased to read a couple of weeks ago that the number continues to shrink.3

COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus, once again, the appalling damage that smoking causes.4 Available research tells us that smokers are more likely to become severely ill with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers.3 They also have increased risk of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cancer and diabetes, all of which put people with these conditions at higher risk of serious illness and death when affected by COVID-19.4

The pandemic is reminding us of the devastation smoking leaves behind. Smoking causes almost three quarters of lung cancers and around one in seven cancer cases in the UK.5 Cancer rates are still rising and more than one in two of us will be diagnosed with the disease in our lives.6

In the UK, we're grappling with how to mitigate the worst of the health, social and economic consequences of the pandemic. Most of us are only just turning to the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what might have beens’. But among the myriad uncertainties, some facts remain clear - smoking is still the world's leading cause of preventable death.5

As we have come together to fight our new and common enemy in COVID-19, we must also harness that spirit of partnership and conviction to fight old adversaries, too.’

Despite the success of public health campaigns, there are around seven million smokers in the UK and smoking accounts for approximately 96,000 deaths a year here.5 Perhaps more worrying still, smoking is not limited to older generations.

UK residents aged 25 to 34 make up the highest proportion of current smokers, with one in five habitually smoking.7 And it is estimated that around 207,000 children in the UK take up the habit each year.8

But some recent analysis by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and University College London (UCL) suggested that over a million people in the UK could have stopped smoking since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country.3 While UCL has found more people quit smoking in the year to June 2020 than in any year since its survey began in 2007.

These early signs of changes suggest that, just perhaps, the stubbornly high number of smokers in the UK can be influenced by external factors, such as Government advice that smokers may be at risk of more severe COVID-19 symptoms.9

And that is why I'm turning to every member of the UK health community today. We're rallying together to fight COVID-19. Alongside volunteers, governments, frontline workers, the life sciences industry, our colleagues, and families, we continue to collaborate in unprecedented ways to find treatments and vaccines, and to care for each other.

As we have come together to fight our new and common enemy in COVID-19, we must also harness that spirit of partnership and conviction to fight old adversaries, too. We have made great progress, but COVID-19 has sharpened our focus on smoking.

And this preliminary data from ASH and UCL shows us, again, why we should renew our efforts to help prevent the next generation from experiencing the same smoking-related limitations as generations before them, as well as to support smokers to quit.

We at Pfizer are doing our bit to make treatments as accessible as possible and are partnering with the CURE Project in Greater Manchester to help smokers quit when they are admitted to hospital.

So, this World Lung Cancer Day, let's think about what we can do together - as policy makers, influencers and the life sciences industry - to support people to quit smoking for COVID, and for life.



  1. John Hopkins University, COVID-19 Dashboard Accessed 31st July 2020.
  2. Action on Smoking and Health, Smoking Statistics Fact Sheet no.1 November 2018.
  3. Action on Smoking and Health, A million people have stopped smoking since the COVID pandemic hit Britain July 2020.
  4. World Health Organisation, WHO statement: Tobacco use and COVID-19 May 2020
  5. Action on Smoking and Health, Facts at a glance - key smoking statistics September 2018.
  6. Cancer Research UK, Cancer risk statistics Accessed July 2020.
  7. Office for National Statistics, Adult smoking habits in the UK: 2017 Accessed July 2020.
  8. Action on Smoking and Health, Young People Smoking Accessed July 2020.
  9. BBC, Coronavirus: Smokers quit in highest numbers in a decade July 2020


PP-ONC-GBR-1462 / July 2020