Life is full of strange contradictions. Some are so invasive, they’re seen as undeniable truths that resist every effort to straighten them out.
For example, I recently drove past one of our town’s tobacco shops. It was determined as an “essential service” during enforced social distancing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Entering the store was a woman wearing a colorful homemade face mask. My immediate thought was, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Here was an individual entering a tobacco shop wearing a device to protect her respiratory system from the relatively low risk of catching a virus to buy a carton of cigarettes.
According to the National Centers for Health Statistics, 655,381 Americans died in 2018 from heart disease, with smoking being a major contributing factor. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control estimated 450,000 Americans died from smoking, including 49,000 from second-hand smoke.
According to the CDC, tobacco use is the leading cause of death in the U.S. Currently, 16 million Americans suffer from smoking-related illnesses. It’s clear from growing evidence related to mortality rates associated with COVID-19 that smoking-related diseases that compromise immunity are significant contributing factors.
People discuss the impact of COVID-19 on agriculture. Shouldn’t there be some attention given to smoking and its related health effects on high mortality rates?
It may not be our responsibility to tell farmers how they should live. However, to ignore how smoking fits into the COVID-19 equation is simply bad science. Instead, we should look at the health and safety behaviors of those we serve more holistically, as an integral part of their lives.
For example, we can’t focus on unguarded components of a piece of farm machinery or hazards of an agricultural chemical and not address the additional risk that exposure to these hazards can have while under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Also, we can’t, in good faith, criticize a farmer for cleaning moldy corn out of a bin without wearing an N95 respirator and then remain silent when they smoke nonstop during a farm visit, or smoke in an enclosed setting with their children present. They should know that such behavior makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19, and places them at a higher risk of life-threatening complications.
For some reason, we’ve placed a firewall between our consideration of unsafe farm work practices and unhealthy personal choices. This neglect is comparable to failing to inform farmers that it’s a well-documented fact that a tractor equipped with a rollover protective structure reduces the risk of dying in the event of a tractor overturn, or that walking on crusted grain can cause an entrapment, or that working with anhydrous ammonia without safety goggles can result in blindness.
With a little diplomacy and a nonjudgmental approach, it shouldn’t be too painful to have a conversation with family members and friends on the short- and long-term effects from smoking.
Once the dust settles and life returns somewhat to normal, one lesson learned from COVID-19 might be that a lot of its impact could be attributed to personal choices that made us more vulnerable. It might also reaffirm the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Field is the Purdue University Extension ag engineering farm safety specialist. He writes from West Lafayette, Ind.