Here’s how that rumor that smokers can’t get COVID-19 got started

Three experts told Salon that people should not jump to conclusions about recent studies into nicotine and COVID-19

 

MATTHEW ROZSA
MAY 13, 2020 11:00PM (UTC)

 

Old cigarette ads often made outrageous claims about cigarettes, including, infamously, that they could cure asthma. (They can’t.) So the rumors that smokers might be at lower risk for contracting COVID-19 seem similarly specious.

Oddly, such rumors seemed to be rooted in a grain of truth. (We’ll get to that later.) Still, Salon spoke with three experts, all of whom said the same thing: it is almost certain that smoking puts you at greater risk of dying from a coronavirus infection.

“They’re not saying that smoking prevents [coronavirus]. They’re saying that nicotine prevents it,” Dr. William Haseltine, the founder and former CEO of Human Genome Sciences, and currently the chair and president of the global health think tank Access Health International, told Salon regarding an April study in “Comptes rendus biologies” led by French neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux.

“Smoking clearly exacerbates it. The nicotine, maybe an acetone,” Haseltine continued. “I can tell they have to show the data, and I don’t think they show the data here. All they do is speculate. But the danger is that many people may conflate nicotine with smoking. That’s definitely bad for you.”

He added, “There are many studies around the world, many different populations have shown that if you are a current smoker, your chance of dying from an infection is much higher than if you were not. This paper opens the possibility that nicotine may be a useful treatment; it doesn’t show it, but speculates based on some detective logic. That logic may be correct. I can’t say because I have to do the experiments to know if it is correct.”

The study that Haseltine referenced was popularized by a Vice article last month with the headline “Why Are Smokers Being Hospitalized Less Often From Coronavirus?” It noted how the Changeux study found that “of 343 hospitalized patients, only 4.4 percent were recorded as smokers; of 139 outpatients, only 5.3 percent were recorded as smokers.” Changeux notes that “more than a quarter” of the French population smokes cigarettes.

The article also featured a study led by Greek cardiologist and tobacco harm-reduction specialist Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos, which concluded that their “preliminary analysis does not support the argument that current smoking is a risk factor for hospitalization for COVID-19 . . . . Instead, these consistent observations, which are further emphasized by the low prevalence of current smoking among COVID-19 patients in the US (1.3%), raises the hypothesis that nicotine may have beneficial effects on COVID-19.” It acknowledged that “other confounding factors need to be considered and the accuracy of the recorded smoking status needs to be determined. However, the results were remarkably consistent across all studies and were recently verified in the first case series of COVID-19 cases in the US.”

“The generalized advice to quit smoking as a measure to improve health risk remains valid, but no recommendation can currently be made concerning the effects of smoking on the risk of hospitalization for COVID-19,” the study concluded.

Dr. Russell Medford, chairman of the Center for Global Health Innovation in Atlanta, shared his own thoughts with Salon about the studies in question.

“The nicotinic acid hypothesis that is the basis for all of these studies is not unreasonable from a molecular standpoint,” Medford explained. “The data that relates to cigarette smoking to the progression of COVID-19, in the most recent study that I’m referring to, shows a significant risk of progression of disease in patients who have a current or recent or have a history of smoking. The two are not linked.”

 

MATTHEW ROZSA

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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May 13, 2020