COVID-19: Study Finds Smokers Less Likely to Suffer; Doctors Wary

Preliminary study by researchers finds that smokers may be at lesser risk of COVID-19. Doctors express caution.

4 min read
The findings come as a surprise and contradict many other studies and recommendations which have cautioned against tobacco use and smoking.

A preliminary study by French researchers left the medical community baffled when it found that smokers may be 80 percent less likely to catch COVID-19 than non-smokers of the same age and sex.

Analyzing public health data, the scientists concluded that out of the 482 patients who visited Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris between February 28th and April 9th, merely 5 percent were daily smokers, according to a report in The Economist.

The results come as a surprise and contradict multiple other studies and expert warnings which have cautioned against tobacco use and smoking, as FIT had earlier reported. The study researchers have also acknowledged the danger smoking poses to health, making further inquiry into the findings extremely necessary.

As a follow-up to these results, the researchers will be initiating trials in the next three weeks by offering nicotine patches to patients (400), front-line workers (1500 health professionals) and ordinary citizens, who will then be compared with control groups given a placebo.

While smokers may not be completely protected from getting infected by the novel coronavirus, they are perhaps less likely to develop symptoms, and more likely than non-smokers to have mild symptoms, thereby not going to hospitals, the study theorises.

The hypothesis is based on the potentially positive impact of nicotine - it could influence whether or not the coronavirus molecules are able to attach themselves to the receptors in the body, reported Reuters.

Study researcher Jean-Pierre Changeux, emeritus professor of neuroscience at France’s Pasteur Institute, said, “You have the virus which arrives on the receptor, and the nicotine blocks that, and they separate.”

Nicotine may also have anti-inflammatory effects and prevent a hyperactive immune response in the form of a cytokine storm.

Preliminary data from other places such as New York seemed to have similarly found a low rate of hospitalisation among smokers, a report in VICE said. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed, it added.

Researchers Acknowledge Smoking Harms

The study researchers, however, made it a point to not jump to any hasty conclusions, considering the harms which are associated with nicotine. In the study, they said,

“One should not forget that nicotine is a drug of abuse responsible for smoking addiction. Smoking has severe pathological consequences and remains a serious danger for health. Yet under controlled settings, Nicotinic agents could provide an efficient treatment for an acute infection such as COVID-19.”
The study

Apprehending bulk buying and use of nicotine patches by citizens following the results of the trial, the French Government limited the online sale of the patches and other smoking cessation tools.

Contradicting the French research, several studies have found smoking to be a risk factor of contracting as well as developing complications from the disease.

For instance, a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine in the early weeks of coronavirus spread, after considering the data of 1,099 COVID-19 patients in China, found that out of 173 patients who had severe symptoms, 16.9% were current smokers and 5.2% were former smokers. Out of 926 people who had less-severe symptoms, 11.8% were current smokers and 1.3% former smokers.

Health Bodies, Doctors Warn Against Tobacco Use

Top bodies, WHO and CDC too have warned smokers. World Health Organisation, while answering if smokers and tobacco users are at a higher risk of COVID-19, says, “Smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 as the act of smoking means that fingers (and possibly contaminated cigarettes) are in contact with lips which increases the possibility of transmission of virus from hand to mouth. Smokers may also already have lung disease or reduced lung capacity which would greatly increase the risk of serious illness”.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its preliminary report has said that smoking might put you at higher risk for death from COVID-19. CDC reached this conclusion after analysing data from confirmed cases in all 50 states and four US territories between 12 February and 2 March.

FIT had earlier reported on the risks associated with smoking. Dr. Nevin Kishore, one of the senior Pulmonologists in Max Hospital had said,

“Smoking causes Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which is damage to lung at the alveolar level. That is where the exchange of air happens. COVID-19 patients are also getting affected at the same level. Understandably, those who already have damaged alveolar levels due to smoking will face difficulty fighting any bacteria or COVID-19. Even a smaller amount of the virus will create more symptoms in smokers than in people with healthy lungs.”
Dr. Nevin Kishore

Dr Kishore pointed out that smoking affects health in many other ways at the non-lung level too. It damaged the immunity in general. "Young smokers are at the same COVID-19 risk level as non-smoker older people. With compromised lung health, smokers are at a higher risk of suffering from the disease as well as succumbing to it.”

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