Fact check: Are smokers at less risk for contracting the coronavirus?

Fact check: Are smokers at less risk for contracting the coronavirus?

The claim: Nicotine substitutes could have a positive effect in fighting COVID-19

Amid coronavirus news, claims have surfaced that nicotine could contribute to preventing people from contracting COVID-19.

This followed the release of a study suggesting that those who smoke daily are less likely to develop a severe case of the virus.

Different news outlets, including The Daily Mail and The New York Post, reported on the findings from the French study, which came from the Pitié Salpêtrière, a major hospital in Paris.

“Nicotine may be suggested as a potential preventive agent against COVID-19 infection,” the study reads. “Both the epidemiological/clinical evidence and the in-silico findings may suggest that COVID-19 infection is a nAChR disease that could be prevented and may be controlled by nicotine.”

More: What's true and what's false about coronavirus?

The study acknowledges that nicotine is a drug of abuse and could have severe pathological consequences. But it states that in controlled settings, nicotine could provide an efficient treatment.

“Results showed that of the patients hospitalized, with a median age of 65, only 4.4 percent were regular smokers,” the Daily Mail piece reads. “But among those at home, with a median age of 44, 5.3 percent smoked.”

The Daily Mail article continued: "By comparison, among the general population, 40 percent of those between ages 44 and 53 smoke, and around 11 percent of those aged 65 to 75 smoke. The researchers determined that far fewer smokers appear to have contracted the virus or, if they have, their symptoms are less serious."

The study examined 480 coronavirus patients.

France reacts, limits sales of nicotine substitutes

Shortly after the study was released, the French government banned online sales of nicotine replacements, such as nicotine gum and patches, and warned that pharmacies that dispense treatments for tobacco addiction must limit the amount they issue per person, Business Insider reported.

“Because of media coverage of the potentially protective effect of nicotine against COVID-19, there is a high risk of a significant rise in the pharmacy dispensing and Internet sale of nicotine replacement treatments over the coming days,” a draft order from the European Commission reads.

The order explains the limitations are necessary to regulate the pharmacy dispensing and the Internet sale of nicotine substitutes. The limitations were also established to prevent the health risks associated with “excessive consumption or misuse in the wake of media coverage,” and to maintain an appropriate supply for those who are looking to quit smoking.

Other studies suggest differently

In an overview by the National Center for Biotechnology Information of five different studies suggesting that nicotine may aid in severe COVID-19 cases, it was found that “smoking is most likely associated with the negative progression and adverse outcomes of COVID-19.”

On April 21, Bloomberg News reported the U.S. Food and Drug Administration revised its stance on COVID-19 and nicotine, saying nicotine could also increase the chances of catching the coronavirus. It was reported earlier in the month that smokers could potentially have worse outcomes from the virus.

“People who smoke cigarettes may be at increased risk of infection with the virus that causes Covid-19, and may have worse outcomes from Covid-19,” the agency told Bloomberg News.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance that people with medical conditions such chronic lung disease, high blood pressure and diabetes are at a higher risk for severe illness from the virus.

A post by the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of San Francisco states people could reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus by ditching smoking and vaping products.

“When someone’s lungs are exposed to flu or other infections the adverse effects of smoking or vaping are much more serious than among people who do not smoke or vape,” the post reads.

Researchers caution against the study

The study drew criticism from some experts who were skeptical about its findings .

“This is one study done by one group. We have to wait and see on the evidence,” Robert Schwartz, a professor at the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health and executive director of the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, told Global News. He said even if nicotine does play a role in preventing the virus, it could potentially cause more harm than COVID-19 if everyone started smoking.

Jason Sheltzer, a fellow at Cold Spring Harbor Lab, a nonprofit research and educational institution, created a Twitter thread highlighting flaws in the study.

“So in short, I think that this analysis is severely flawed. They’re comparing statistics that shouldn’t be compared.” Sheltzer tweeted after analyzing the study. “I don’t think that there’s any convincing evidence that smoking protects against coronavirus.”

Our rating: More information needed

More information is needed in order to rate the claim that nicotine substitutes could help in fighting COVID-19 symptoms as true or false. It is possible that nicotine substitutes could aid in fighting the coronavirus but findings from the French study were very preliminary and more research is needed. Furthermore, many other studies state differently and researchers have warned against jumping to conclusions from the study.

Our fact-check sources:

Daily Mail, French researchers to give nicotine patches to coronavirus patients and frontline workers after lower rates of infection were found among smokersNew York Post, French researchers to test nicotine patches on coronavirus patientsBusiness Insider, France has banned online sales of nicotine substitutes after a study showed smokers are less likely to be admitted for COVID-19European Commission, Draft OrderBloomberg News, FDA Says Smokers May Have Higher Risk of Catching Covid-19Center for Disease Control and PreventionGlobal News, Reality check: Experts caution against early research on nicotine and COVID-19University of San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research and EducationNational Center for Biotechnology InformationJason Sheltzer, Twitter

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/05/03/covid-19-fact-check-caution-urged-study-virus-smoking/3055378001/

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