FARGO — With research showing that smokers are more likely to suffer severe COVID-19 symptoms, health experts are emphasizing the need for people to quit smoking and vaping.

This has prompted some smokers to try to quit the habit. But for others, the coronavirus pandemic is causing them to smoke more.

Jason McCoy, tobacco prevention coordinator for Clay County Public Health, says the split between people he’s heard from reacting to the pandemic by quitting vs. people smoking more than before due to boredom or anxiety is “about 50-50.”

“We’re seeing people who stay at home — you could feel like there’s nothing to do so I need to smoke,” he said. “And I think there are probably some people who are scared and maybe the nicotine is what they think will help them cope. But we know that while nicotine seems like it will cause instant comfort but it enhances anxiety.”

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine said that people who smoke were 2.4 times more likely to have severe symptoms from COVID-19 compared to those who don’t.

“Smoking and vaping both harm the lung tissue and reduce the lungs' abilities to fight off infection,” McCoy said. “We’ve been talking about that for years. COVID attacks the lung tissues as a virus. So anything that depresses the lungs' abilities to fight off an infection is something that is going to put you at a greater chance to fall prey to a virus. We are suggesting that anybody who smokes and vapes gives up the usage of these products for their own safety, especially right now.”

On top of decreasing the body’s ability to fight off infection and lowering lung capacity, the act of smoking itself puts a person at higher risk of infection, according to the World Health Organization. Smokers increase the possibility of transmitting the virus from a surface to their hands and into their systems by touching their faces and lips. And going out to stores to get cigarettes or vaping materials puts people at higher risk of contracting the virus from community spread.

"We’re only supposed to be going to the stores for essential things,” Fargo Cass Public Health Tobacco Prevention Coordinator Melissa Markegard said. “We want cigarettes, e-cigarettes and vapes to become things that are not essential.”

McCoy says the Minnesota Department of Health has seen an uptick of people wanting assistance quitting smoking amid the pandemic. The MDH recently launched a new program, Quit Partner, to help people who want to quit smoking, vaping or using any tobacco products.

The program provides free support to Minnesota residents that includes personalized coaching, email and text support, educational materials and quit medication such as nicotine patches, gum or lozenges delivered by mail. It can be found online at quitpartnermn.com or reached on phone at 1-800-784-8669.

North Dakota’s NDQuits plan provides similar support and allows users to enroll at ndquits.health.nd.gov or by phone at the same number as Minnesota.

“A lot of people are immuno-compromised and they don’t have control over that,” Markegard said. “Smoking is something you do have control over. We are always suggesting that people quit, especially during this pandemic.”

There are near-immediate benefits to quitting smoking. Pulse and blood pressure start to normalize within 20 minutes, and within 12 hours, carbon monoxide levels in blood drop.

“Your body is meant to heal itself,” McCoy said. “Right now is a great time to quit. People are throwing on a mask so they don’t risk breathing on somebody else. It doesn’t make sense to purposefully breathe in something that is impacting your ability to fight off this virus.”

Being self-quarantined and away from social situations could be a favorable circumstance for those who smoke socially, especially young people who smoke or vape with their friends.

“It’s really easy for young people who vape with their friends to not think about what they’re using,” McCoy said. “But when you’re at home you think, ‘Whoa, I was using this much vape juice a day.’”

“We know that a lot of youth were vaping and right now is a great time for youth to quit,” Markegard said. “They don’t have access to their friends who could have been supplying them with vape juice.”