Though authorities imposed strict bans and hiked the price of tobacco products, smoking remains a major public health concern for Turkey. A hotline set up by Health Ministry 11 years ago seeks to curb the smoking rate in the country where 15 million people adhere to the hazardous habit.
The 171 hotline caters to callers seeking a way out of the habit which created the phrase “to smoke like a Turk.” Staffed by health care professionals, the hotline which operates around the clock fields some 3,000 calls daily. The operators give advice to callers and follow up on their progress by calling them back to check in regularly. Last year alone, 25% of callers managed to quit smoking with the assistance of the hotline. The hotline also offers free advice to smokers on how to cope with the fallout of quitting smoking.
Each person is provided with a personalized plan for quitting after their nicotine addiction levels are determined through tests. Then, they are directed to clinics across the country which provide treatment for the addiction. Currently, there are 537 clinics that operate in Turkey. Clinics offer drug treatment for addicts. Addicts are given free access to drugs like varenicline and bupropion and nicotine replacements. More than 3 million people checked into those clinics since they started operations in 2010, and more than 1.2 million people were given drugs to help them to kick the habit.
Turkey marks Feb. 9 as Quit Smoking Day, an occasion where events are held to highlight the dangers of smoking. Though the ongoing coronavirus pandemic scaled back those events, it also provided an opportunity for experts to raise awareness among the public about smoking’s impact on people with COVID-19. The disease, which particularly affects the lungs, is more severe for smokers. The government last year ordered a wider smoking ban amid the pandemic.
Professor Elif Dağlı, head of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Health Institute and a prominent anti-smoking advocate, says tobacco use makes COVID-19 more severe for patients, just like it caused or heightened risk for higher blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, chronic lung diseases, cancer and diabetes. “COVID-19 killed 2.3 million people in the world, but tobacco products kill 8 million people every year,” Dağlı told Anadolu Agency (AA) on Tuesday. She pointed out that coronavirus fatalities were higher among smokers. Another danger she highlights is that smokers can be infected easier than others because they often touch their lips with their hands. “Coronavirus will be more severe for them as their lung capacity is lower compared with others,” she added. Another danger lies in shared tobacco products like hookah pipes.
“The risk of progress in COVID-19 is at least twice more for smokers once they are infected, according to studies. A study involving 1,500 coronavirus patients and conducted between March and July 2020 by the Turkish Thoracic Society showed active smokers had more than three times higher risk of death,” she warned.
Associate professor Volkan Kara, a member of the science board of the Turkish Green Crescent (Yeşilay), the country’s leading teetotaller society, says smoking-related deaths in the country is around 80,000 annually while the coronavirus killed 26,000 people. Kara told AA that deaths from both sources are “preventable,” referring to hygiene rules for protection against the coronavirus and quitting smoking. Yeşilay also operates a hotline to serve smokers, and Kara says the number of calls increased ninefold during the pandemic. “Most people are aware of the danger smoking poses during the outbreak. In other words, the pandemic motivated them to quit smoking,” he says. Kara says it was also important for smokers who quit smoking after infection with the coronavirus not to resume it after their recovery.
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