WHO: Smoking cigarettes won't protect you from the coronavirus

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WHO: Smoking cigarettes won't protect you from the coronavirus
A man smokes a cigarette while wearing a protective mask while waiting for a bus in Detroit, Wednesday, April 8, 2020.Paul Sancya/AP Photo
  • An April study out of France suggested that smokers are less likely to be infected with COVID-19 than non-smokers.
  • But in a media briefing May 8, a World Health Organization leader said the research has important caveats and that smoking is known to lead to a higher risk of severe disease.
  • Still, researchers are looking into whether nicotine, delivered via a patch, may be somehow protective against the virus.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove did not mince words when asked about recent reports suggesting that cigarette smoking might help protect users from developing COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

To the contrary, "there are a number of studies out there that have been published that have found that smoking leads to more severe disease, the development of severe disease, and puts people at higher risk for being put on a ventilator, being in an ICU, and for dying," Van Kerkhove, who serves as the COVID-19 technical lead at the World Health Organization, said during a media briefing May 8.

Van Kerkhove was responding to a question about French researchers' surprising finding in April: Very few of their COVID-19 patients were daily smokers.

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Specifically, out of the 482 COVID-19 patients one hospital had seen over a six-week stretch, only 4.4% of those who'd been hospitalized smoked at least daily. Among those who could ride the disease out at home, only 5.3% were daily smokers.

Compared to the 25.4% of the French population that smokes daily, the information, the researchers said, "strongly suggests that daily smokers have a very much lower probability of developing symptomatic or severe SARS-CoV-2 infection."

Their hypothesis was that nicotine may adhere to cell receptors and prevent the virus from entering people's cells.

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Two of the researchers published another article the next day proposing that nicotine be studied as a potential COVID-19 therapy.

But Van Kerkhove said the two papers weren't peer-reviewed, weren't designed to accurately assess whether smoking is protective against COVID-19, and don't in fact conclude that. Plus, people could have lied about their smoking status.

"I will repeat that we know the harms of smoking and we know that smokers, if they do get infected with COVID-19, have a higher risk of severe disease," Van Kerkhove said.

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WHO: Smoking cigarettes won't protect you from the coronavirus
Crystal Cox/Business Insider

Smoking is known to exacerbate COVID-19 severity

Almost everything about smoking makes it the exact type of thing you wouldn't want to do if you're trying to avoid COVID-19.

The habit requires you to put your fingers close to your mouth, something experts have cautioned against. It raises the risk of lung disease or reduced lung function, which can make COVID-19 much more severe. It can affect how your body makes and uses oxygen, which boosts the risk for conditions like pneumonia.

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If you smoke socially, you may not be physically distancing and can't wear a mask. The behavior also weakens the immune system.

Research supports this logic, too. Using data from the largest study that looked at smoking and disease severity, which included 1,099 COVID-19 patients in China, scientists calculated that smokers were 1.4 times more likely to have severe symptoms of COVID-19 and approximately 2.4 times more likely to be admitted to an ICU, need mechanical ventilation, or die compared to non-smokers.

More recently, a meta-analysis including 11,590 COVID-19 patients concluded that smoking was associated with almost a doubling of the risk of disease progression.

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Nicotine is being explored as potential therapy

Still, French researchers are reportedly planning to dole out nicotine patches to coronavirus patients and frontline healthcare workers to explore their theory that nicotine may be protective against COVID-19.

The media coverage around their hypothesis led the French government to ban online sales of nicotine replacements and require pharmacies to limit their doses in order to prevent people from "over-consuming" nicotine and to ensure there's enough for people who are legitimately trying to quit smoking.

Even the researchers warn that their work shouldn't be taken as a license to abuse nicotine or smoke."Smoking," they write, "has severe pathological consequences and remains a serious danger for health."

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