When the news came out that smokers were more likely to develop severe disease with COVID-19 compared to non-smokers, it triggered mil-lions of smokers to want to quit tobacco. Tobacco smoking impairs lung function, making it harder for the body to fight off coronaviruses and other diseases.

“Smoking kills eight million people a year, but if users need more motivation to kick the habit, the pandemic provides the right incentive,” said Dr Tedros Ghebreyseus, Director-General, WHO. Quitting can be challenging, especially with the added social and economic stress that have come as a result of the pandemic. Of the 1.3 billion tobacco users globally, 60% have expressed the desire to quit – but only 30% have access to the tools to help them to do so successfully.

As the current health work force is mobilized to handle the pandemic, the health system is unable to support smokers to quit or guide them on how to quit. Enter Florence, an empathetic digital health worker who can give you brief advice on quitting tobacco or guide you to the tools and solutions available to help tobacco users quit right from the comfort of your own home. To launch Florence, WHO teamed up with tech giants Amazon Web Services, Google and Soul Machines to utilize the latest technology that could be available 24/7 from anywhere around the globe. Soul Machine technology also created the digital people featured in the unforgettable movie ’Avatar’.

Digital solutions, such as mobile SMS/text messaging programmes, have emerged over the last few years, filling some of these gaps in access to cessation services and helping people quit successfully.

Using computer-generated imagery (CGI) and animation, Florence delivers evidence-based brief advice techniques commonly used in health care settings to help tobacco users to quit. She has the unique ability to engage in real-time conversation with tobacco users, help them build a quit plan, combat misinformation about COVID-19 and tobacco, and refer them to digital cessation services (toll free quit lines, apps, mCessation projects) recommended by WHO.

By using a standardized conversational guide, Florence ensures that the narrative is correct and fact-based and controlled to some degree, ensuring better outcomes. The WHO digital health worker will help the world’s 1.3 billion tobacco users quit, protecting them against a potentially severe case of COVID-19 and many other diseases.

The benefits of quitting can be felt almost immediately. Within 20 minutes of quitting, elevated heart rate and high blood pressure drop. After 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level in the bloodstream drops to normal. Within a few weeks, circulation improves and lung function increases and after a few months, coughing and shortness of breath decrease.

There has never been a better time to quit tobacco. Quit today to reduce these risks and start living a healthier life.

This article was originally published in newSpecial: Serving the people of international organizations in Geneva since 1949.
St Caire, S., Guerra, J.,  Schotte, K., WHO. (2020). “Meet Florence: The first WHO digital health worker to help 1.3 billion tobacco users quit.” newSpecial, (September 2020), p29.

Smokers are encouraged to scan the QR code to speak with Florence.

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