Tobacco, a barrier against Covid-19? Beware of false information

Professor Jean-François Delfraissy

The low number of smokers among patients affected by the coronavirus is a concern for doctors. However, if the influence of nicotine on the virus remains to be studied, specialists warn: cigarettes are not a therapeutic solution.

Chairman of the scientific committee responsible for advising the government on the Covid-19 epidemic, Professor Jean-François Delfraissy has reported surprising news about the virus in recent days. “We have something very special with tobacco,” he said. “It has been found that the vast majority of severe cases are not smokers, as if […] tobacco protects against this virus, via nicotine.

While high blood pressure or diabetes, common in people suffering from obesity, are risk factors, this finding could suggest that tobacco, on the contrary, forms a barrier against infections. An observation greeted with considerable reservations by tobacco specialists, who believe that further studies are necessary and that cigarettes can in no way be considered useful in matters of public health.

Let’s not forget that there are 200 cigarette deaths per day in France

Pulmonologist and tobacco specialist, Professor Bertrand Dautzenberg was the guest of LCI this Monday. He confirmed that the proportion of smoking patients hospitalized as part of the epidemic was low compared to the number of smokers registered in the population. Consistent data highlight this, both in France, the United States and China. A series of studies are currently being carried out, he explains, to investigate a potential slowing down of penetration of the virus through the body.

However, the tobacco specialist is formal: this possible benefit needs to be supported by research work and must above all not lead to the population turning to tobacco, or ceasing to seek to quit it. “Cigarettes have killed 100 million people in the 20th century, they will kill 1 billion in the 21st,” insists Professor Dautzenberg, recalling that, according to estimates, there are 200 deaths due to tobacco every day in France.

“Cigarettes are not a therapeutic solution”, continues the expert, “the benefit-risk report massively pleads in favor of risk.” Even if studies concluded that there was some sort of protective effect against the virus, cigarettes would bring “no health benefits”. To summarize his point, Bertrand Dautzenberg uses a telling image: “We don’t cure a flu by shooting ourselves in the lungs, the remedy must not be worse than the disease”.

The suspected protective effect of nicotine, if it does not in any case make tobacco a preventive treatment, has something to be questioned. Several avenues are evoked to try to explain the low proportion of smokers among hospitalized people, in particular the fact that the patients in care are mostly elderly. The rate of smokers decreases with age, which can therefore translate statistically.

In conclusion, we can therefore emphasize that if nicotine is today suspected of slowing down the penetration of Covid-19 into the body, studies are still necessary to prove it. These are all the more important since some scientists believe, for their part, that nicotine could on the contrary have harmful effects on patients. On the medical level, the consumption of tobacco remains in any case very largely discouraged. The risk benefit is indeed not at all favorable to cigarettes and health professionals recommend not to smoke or to give up quitting.

Covid 19 and cigarettes: a nicotine effect? Studies to be taken with great care

This is a question scientists are asking, even if there are too few studies to date to prove it. Would nicotine somehow protect from Covid-19? Faced with the new disease, medicine is groping, sometimes making findings that defy the prognosis.

The vast majority of serious cases are not smokers

Professor Dautzenberg
Salpêtrière Hospital, Paris

Professor Dautzenberg, tobacco specialist and “staunch opponent of tobacco” also relayed several studies on his Twitter account. But be careful. According to these tobacco specialists, there is too little scientific data to date to establish conclusions.

“There are only a few Chinese and American studies, temper with Franceinfo, Marion Adler, tobacco specialist at Antoine Béclère hospital in Clamart. As she explains, it would be nicotine that would protect perhaps and not tobacco smoke “, recalling that even if there are fewer smokers affected, those who are affected are more severe”.

Tobacco “remains toxic”

If this were the case, the mechanism envisaged would be “a regulation of the ACE2 receptors, which are particular receptors which would perhaps make it possible to decrease the inflammatory syndrome and which would perhaps allow, thanks to nicotine, to protect”, explains the tobacco specialist at Franceinfo. But again this assumption and to take with a lot of tweezers!

As the professional reminds us, nicotine has no health toxicity. “On the other hand, tobacco smoke is still toxic for all diseases and we see in smokers that the cases affected by the coronavirus are often severe cases with severe symptoms,” she insists. It is therefore always obviously not recommended to smoke