Smoke fags, save lives

Scientists believe nicotine might protect against coronavirus.

Christopher Snowdon


There’s not much to laugh about these days, but the news that smokers might be protected from Covid-19 is certainly one of them. With study after study showing that smokers are under-represented in coronavirus wards, the renowned French neuroscientist, Jean-Pierre Changeux, is working on a randomised control trial to test the effect of nicotine patches on Covid-19 patients.

This is far from being a crackpot theory. Changeux has explained his hypothesis at length here. In simple terms, he says that nicotinic acetylcholine receptors play a key role in the development of the disease and that nicotine can put a brake on it. If he is right – and the banter heuristic says he is – it would not only save thousands of lives but would also be one in the eye for the ‘public health’ groups who have been claiming that smoking and vaping are risk factors for Covid-19.

These groups are so used to lying with impunity that they wasted no time in asserting that smoking caused coronavirus complications when the pandemic began. In the US, newspapers have been filled with reports that smokers and vapers ‘may’ be at greater risk from Covid-19, a weasel word that requires no evidence. A group of doctors in New York urged governor Andrew Cuomo to ban the sale of all tobacco and e-cigarette products on the false premise that ‘mounting evidence demonstrates the link between tobacco use and increased risk for progressive Covid-19’. Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation has been taking occasional breaks from flattering the Chinese Communist Party to make evidence-free assertions about smokers being ‘likely’ to suffer more from the coronavirus.

Three weeks ago, Public Health England fished around in the emerging literature and found a study from China involving a grand total of five smokers hospitalised with Covid-19, of whom three suffered severe symptoms. From this crumb of evidence, they made the astounding claim that ‘smokers with Covid-19 are 14 times more likely to develop severe respiratory disease’.

The quango should have paid more attention to how few smokers were in hospital in the first place. In a country where 27 per cent of adults smoke, only 6.4 per cent of the Covid-19 cases were smokers. This was not a fluke finding. Awkwardly for the anti-smoking lobby, smokers have been strangely under-represented in all the studies for which smoking prevalence data is available. They made up just 1.4 per cent of the cases in Zhang et al, 6.7 per cent in Wan et al, 3.9 per cent in Mo et al, seven per cent in Huang et al, nine per cent in Dong et al, 10 per cent of cases in Yang et al, 1.9 per cent in Guan et al, six per cent in Zhou et al, and 6.4 per cent in Liu et al. In Shi et al, only 8.2 per cent of cases had any smoking history.

Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos of the University of Patras in Greece noticed this phenomenon early on and put a preliminary study online in late March. It noted the ‘unusually low prevalence of current smoking was observed among hospitalised Covid-19 patients’, which ‘does not support the argument that current smoking is a risk factor for hospitalisation for Covid-19, and might suggest a protective role’.

A few days earlier, a group of doctors from the Royal Glamorgan Hospital had written to the British Medical Journal to point out that nicotine protects against the kind of acute inflammatory reactions seen in Covid patients and that ‘the simple use of nicotine patches should be urgently considered and discussed’. Nobody paid much attention, but evidence supporting the smoking hypothesis continued to slip out.

On 3 April, the US Centers for Disease Control published data on thousands of American Covid-19 cases. Once again, the proportion of smokers was tiny – just 1.3 per cent. Even ex-smokers were significantly under-represented (2.3 per cent).

The most comprehensive epidemiological study appeared a week later. Based on data from 4,103 Covid patients in New York City, a team of researchers found that a history of smoking was associated with a 29 per cent reduction in risk of being hospitalised with Covid-19 and, contrary to the claims of Public Health England, smokers were no more likely to become critically ill with the disease if they were admitted. The authors would have found an even sharper reduction in risk for current smokers if they had split them up from ex-smokers in their analysis, but even the findings as published were striking.

This week, a group of French academics published their study of 343 Covid patients, of whom only 4.4 per cent were daily smokers. According to the authors, the study ‘strongly suggests that daily smokers have a very much lower probability of developing symptomatic or severe SARS-CoV-2 infection as compared to the general population’. This seems to have been the study that prompted Professor Changeux to go public with his research project.

People scoffed when Emmanuel Macron exempted tobacco kiosks from France’s lockdown on the basis that they provide an essential service. Who’s coughing now?

Far be it from me to preempt the conclusions of the professor’s research, but let us consider for a moment the policy implications of nicotine being the only tried and tested prophylactic for Covid-19. We could issue Lucky Strikes on prescription. We could #ClapForOurCigarettes every Thursday evening. The case for closing down Public Health England would be stronger than ever. We could open the pubs, but only to smokers and vapers. We might allow a few non-smokers in to enjoy the possible benefits of passive exposure, but only if they stand two metres apart. There is everything to play for.

The icing on the cake would be if British American Tobacco is first out of the blocks with a vaccine. Everyone who works for the World Health Organisation would have to go unvaccinated on principle and rely instead on herd immunity. Smokers would, of course, be pushed to the front of the queue for vaccination. They paid for it, after all.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But, by God, wouldn’t it be fun?

Christopher Snowdon is director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also the co-host of Last Orders, spiked’s nanny-state podcast.

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John McDougall

28th April 2020 at 7:57 am

Oh hell! must find some way to suppress this fact/inference.
Signed: ex-smoker

Linda Payne

27th April 2020 at 3:30 pm

Repeal the smoking ban in pubs, half the price of cigarettes and put the health zealots back in their (non smoking) closet

Bridget Jones

27th April 2020 at 11:26 am

UK affected the worse due to fewer smokers would make an interesting headline.hmmm.

Bella Donna

27th April 2020 at 9:19 am

I too laughed loudly when I read about this some days ago. For years smokers have been hounded like lepers so it was amusing to read there are some benefits! . That’s one in the eye for the virtue signallers! BTW I am an ex smoker!

Jim Albright

26th April 2020 at 10:33 pm

This is similar to the protective effect of nicotine on Ulcerative Colitis patients. Only non-smokers and former smokers get the disease. Ulcerative Colitis is basically a cytokine storm on the lining on the colon.

T Zazoo

25th April 2020 at 11:08 pm

Smoking makes you immune from Covid-19? That proves it’s a Chinese bio-weapon then.

Fraser Bailey

25th April 2020 at 10:49 am

I was about to send a cheque to Spiked when I heard Chris Snowden say on the podcast that Trump had described C-19 as ‘a hoax’. No, he didn’t. He said that the media’s description of his response to C-19 was ‘a hoax’. This is lazy reporting and displays a complete lack of knowledge. I see this all the time with UK writers when it comes to the US – they just don’t know the facts. If I can follow the facts from the US in real time via YouTube, why can’t British journalists?

Iwan Hughes

24th April 2020 at 7:35 pm

While I would love this to be right, and the data as presented seem pretty compelling, especially compared with some of the other dubious conclusions, there is one thing that is bothering me: that is, in this country at least, presenting in any medical establishment as a smoker is to invite a damn good nagging from all the ‘professionals’ present. Is it possible that smokers are keeping quiet in sufficient numbers to nullify these outstanding results? Personally, I hope not. Even having to issue millions of nicotine patches would give the public health wallahs a seizure.

James Knight

23rd April 2020 at 4:48 pm

If you must smoke, smoke a pipe.

Gareth Edward KING

23rd April 2020 at 4:03 pm

I don’t smoke but I do miss smokers and the smell of tobacco, especially in pubs and bars? (sic). Remember those? Unfortunately, Madrid the city with probably as many bars, pubs, clubs and restaurants per Km2 than anywhere in Europe seems to have (rather depressingly) taken this ‘new normal’ rather (too) seriously, perhaps they’re taking the Mick? What’re all these surgical masks? and rubber gloves doing on? Will Madrid really be able to live up to its laid-back reputation with those things on whilst respecting these over-the-top ‘social distancing’ measures? Madrid’s night life will sink without trace if they keep up these ‘lockdown’ i.e. curfew measures in place for much longer. Madrid ‘la ciudad del’ ‘No pasarán’ – eh?

Dominic Straiton

23rd April 2020 at 3:13 pm

This is old news. The second world war in this country was won by “fags, hot sweet tea and Winston Churchill” . Boys in Eton were flogged for not smoking in the 17th century when an actual plague walked the land. China virus is killed by heat so it stands to reason hot smoke in the lungs kills it. Plus you get to enjoy a nice smoke. Win win.

Highland Fleet Lute

23rd April 2020 at 3:48 pm

“The second world war in this country was won by “fags, hot sweet tea and Winston Churchill”

In the case of WC, don’t forget champagne breakfasts, and a constant drip of whisky and soda.

Adolf Hitler. Non-smoking, teetotal ,vegetarian. Lived a ridiculously destructive life. Lost war. Died young.

Winston Churchill: Chain-smoked cigars and drank everyone else under the table day-in-day out for six years. Lived a ridiculously productive life. Won war. Lived to a ripe old age.

Every time you have a cigarette, your IQ almost doubles, which perhaps explains why almost every great musician, writer, thinker, artist, scientist and politician of the 20th century was a smoker of tobacco.

Highland Fleet Lute

23rd April 2020 at 3:06 pm

I’ve been smoking 30+ cigarettes a day since I was a teenager back in the late 70’s. I never get ill, I never have a day off work, I haven’t had a cold or flu for decades.

The science….

A Comprehensive Review of The Health Benefits of Smoking Tobacco

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