Reality check: Experts caution against early research on nicotine and COVID-19

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Coronavirus danger for smokers
Coronavirus danger for smokers – Apr 8, 2020

A new study out of France suggests that nicotine could play a role in preventing people from contracting COVID-19, but Canadian experts say people should avoid jumping to conclusions.

The Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris examined 480 coronavirus patients — 350 were hospitalized while the rest remained at home with less serious symptoms. They found that a low number of patients in both categories were smokers. Of those in hospital, 4.4 per cent were regular smokers, while about 5.3 per cent of those at home said they smoke.

The findings have already spurred clinical trials in France, where nicotine patches will be used on COVID-19 patients.

While the data is still inconclusive, disseminating this kind of information during a global pandemic hooked on lung disease is “irresponsible,” said Robert Schwartz, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and executive director of the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit.

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“This is one study done by one group. We have to wait and see on the evidence,” he told Global News.

“But if it turns out to be that nicotine plays a role here, we have to be extremely careful. If people start smoking cigarettes to get the nicotine, that’s going to do a whole lot more harm than COVID-19 is going to do.”

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Growing number of Canadian youth vaping

The hospital’s theory is that nicotine might be able to stop the virus from reaching cells in the body, ultimately preventing the spread, according to the study’s co-author, Jean-Pierre Changeux of France’s Pasteur Institute, as reported by the Guardian.

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While there’s some weight in looking at the relationship between these cell receptors, it’s all just a guess right now, said Andrew Pipe of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, the leading Canadian expert on smoking cessation.

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“The hypothesizing, it’s part of the scientific process. There will be a whole pile of concepts that will emerge, which may be worthy of further study, but they’re not ready for primetime,” he told Global News.

“I’m not dissing the concept, but look at the nature of it. The pandemic is such that absolutely there’s phenomenal interest on anything that stimulates that there may be a solution in some way, but that interest can be disproportionate to what’s being suggested here.”

Until then, the research about the dangers of smoking are clear, Schwartz said.

“We already have 47,000 people dying each year from using cigarettes here in Canada and billions around the world,” he said.

“As terrible as the deaths are from COVID-19, it doesn’t even reach the ankles of the number of deaths from smoking.”

2016 study found “ample evidence” that cigarette smoke weakens the defensive function of the immune system. One from 2017 found that even social or occasional smoking can cause immense damage to a person’s body, leading to problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and hypertension. There is “conclusive evidence that smoking is associated with an increased risk of respiratory viral infection,” according to the results of the Surgeon General’s 2014 report.

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The novel coronavirus, which has claimed nearly 200,000 lives worldwide, over 2,000 being in Canada, is a respiratory illness that predominately attacks the lungs.

Many public health agencies have warned about smokers being potentially the most vulnerable to COVID-19, including the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which found smokers in Europe appeared to be more susceptible to breathing complications caused by the disease, as reported by Reuters. In Italy, which was once the epicentre of the outbreak, the Italian National Health Institute reported that the chances smokers needed intensive care treatment and mechanical ventilation were more than double than that of nonsmokers.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, made a plea herself recently.

“It is not yet clear if these exposures increase the risk of catching COVID-19, however, they do increase the risk of severe illness for those who get infected,” she said. “When you’re smoking or vaping, you are also touching your mouth and lips, this can make it easier to catch the virus from your hands.”

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Click to play video: 'Hinshaw advises Albertans to quit smoking, drink less amid COVID-19 pandemic'
Hinshaw advises Albertans to quit smoking, drink less amid COVID-19 pandemic

While the researches from the French study are clear that they’re not encouraging the population to take up smoking, Pipe said there’s still a chance of misinterpretation, which could have “unfortunate consequences.”

Ultimately, people are looking for a quick solution, he said, which they won’t find in this paper.

“It would be wonderful if somebody from a laboratory somewhere says, ‘hallelujah, we found that this compound blocks the virus from attaching itself to whatever, and here’s where we go forward.’ That’s the kind of story everyone’s looking for, that’s the kind of development everyone’s looking for, but science doesn’t necessarily work that way,” he said.

“And this is a hypothesis. It doesn’t prompt me to think, ‘gee, there’s an answer around the corner here.'”

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The virus’s grip on the world is a perfect opportunity for smokers and vapers to quit, said Schwartz.

Even if you’re spared becoming infected, finally kicking the addiction could go a long way to save others in need of a health-care system that is already overburdened, he added.

— with files from Global News’ Megan Collie and Reuters 

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