Since its inception in 1987, World No Tobacco Day, recognized each year on May 31, seeks to shed light on the dangers and health consequences of tobacco use. This year’s theme is #TobaccoExposed, drawing attention to the predatory marketing of the tobacco industry to hook younger generations into lifelong addiction. It is also bringing awareness to the serious complications that can arise for smokers because of COVID-19

In April, WHO released findings from a number of studies that were recently done to understand the link, if any, between COVID-19 and smoking. These results indicated that “smokers are more likely to develop complications and severe disease with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers.” But the daily stress of dealing with COVID-19 has proven to be hard on some former smokers who now are struggling with relapses.  “It is concerning that revenue collected from tobacco products went up in many states in April – rather than down. This is a worrying trend given the linkage between smoking and COVID-19,” said Thomas Carr, the American Lung Association’s National Director of Policy. Though we still have much to learn about COVID-19, we know it is more important than ever for those former smokers to stay smokefree. 

Relapsing can be truly disheartening. Leslie Allen-Seei, a former smoker who has struggled with relapse herself knows the challenges only too well. “I started smoking when I was 13 because I thought it was cool and glamorous. Forty years later, I was up to three and a half packs of menthol cigarettes a day. It was only after some severe health complications, that I admitted something was wrong and I finally went to see the doctor,” she said.

After receiving a throat scope a few days later, it was obvious that Leslie had to put her health first and end this addiction for good. “I just thought I’m going to die if I don’t quit. Between coughing, shortness of breath and health scares, you realize that this isn’t such a glamorous addiction.” 

However, she found the “reward” of smoking the hardest to overcome. “You want to reward and celebrate all the wonderful things you do in a day and for some reason that smoke is an enticing gift, or so it feels. So, part of my quit involved Fannie May Mint Meltaways that I popped in my mouth and let it slowly, deliciously melt away my craving for a cigarette. It worked very well and after 2 months when I was feeling much better about my smokefree progress, I was able to retire those candies.” 

As well as she was doing, about a month after quitting, a stressful situation had Leslie reaching for a pack of cigarettes she had hidden before she quit. “I wound up smoking the whole damn pack that evening before going to bed. When I woke up the next day, my mouth tasted like an ashtray and I felt terrible for letting myself down.” 

But with the support of friends and family, she began her smokefree journey again, and hasn’t looked back since. It is that support system, as well as Lung HelpLine and the Lung Association online support community, that are the keys to her success to this day. For those looking to quit, or struggling with relapse she offered this advice: “Set a date, get whatever tools you intend to use to help you quit ready, and tell your family and friends the date you intend to quit and I can guarantee you that they will become your greatest allies! Then take it one day at a time or 1 hour at a time or 5 minutes at a time—if need be.”

“And if you do slip up…? Snuff out that smoke. Crush that pack and throw it away. Get rid of any cigarettes in your house, car, etc. Don’t have any accessible for another time. Forgive yourself. You are human. We all mess up from time to time. During this stressful time and uncertainty around COVID-19, don’t be dragged back to smoking.  Quitting is a lifelong process, and success doesn’t always happen the first time around but it never comes to those that give up. You can do this!”

To readers who have successfully quit tobacco use over the years, Leslie’s struggle to overcome a stressful situation without revisiting her lifelong nicotine dependency is all too familiar. “Tobacco use becomes an automatic coping mechanism for managing stress. Even those individuals who have successfully quit and maintained a nicotine-free life for several years are struggling.” Adds Jennifer Folkenroth, National Senior Director, Tobacco Programs at the American Lung Association.   “The challenges individuals are facing as a result of COVID-19 are abundant and may present constant triggers leading to high risk for relapse. It is important throughout this pandemic that we continue to support our loved ones who have quit, remind them that we are here to listen if they need to talk through their stress and reiterate how proud we are of them for being tobacco free.”

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