A new pandemic generates anxiety and confusion and drives people to seek remedies that may have little scientific evidence of efficacy. Based upon a flawed interpretation of preliminary COVID-19 data, the hypothesis that cigarette smoking protects one from coronavirus has emerged. Some have taken these incorrect findings to an extreme, as in France, where the online sales of nicotine products online was recently banned.
What is being overlooked is that the same data also show smokers are more likely to be admitted to the ICU, require intubation, or die from COVID-19 infection. A 2003 myth that smoking might protect against a different coronavirus that caused the SARS pandemic was later proven incorrect. The current misguided belief that smoking protects from COVID-19 infection may prove dangerous with significant negative effects on public health.
A vital source of the confusion likely stems from a misinterpretation of early evidence from small studies in China and Europe. The argument is that the proportion of smokers observed among COVID-19 patients is lower than what might be expected based on national smoking rates. A careful review of the data instead reveals the findings are more likely due to statistical flaws and sampling error, along with poor rates of screening and documentation of smoking history by physicians.
Smoking cessation usually isn’t the primary reason for a patient visit to the emergency room, where cigarette use often isn’t discussed.