• A survey of UK smokers suggests many have quit or are thinking about it because of coronavirus.
• Some evidence suggests that smoking may increase the transmission of the virus into the body.
• But other studies appear to show that nicotine may have some protective effects.
More than 300,000 UK smokers may have quit in recent months, with concerns about the additional health impact that cigarettes may have during the coronavirus outbreak.
A survey of UK adults conducted by YouGov and the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) suggests that a further 550,000 smokers have tried to quit, and 2.4 million have cut down.
Some evidence seems to suggest that smokers are more vulnerable to COVID-19, as their fingers are frequently in contact with their lips, increasing the likelihood of the virus being transmitted from their hands. Smokers may also already have lung problems and reduced breathing capacity, which could impact their ability to battle coronavirus. A small study from China found that COVID-19 sufferers who smoke are significantly more likely to develop severe pneumonia.
Of those surveyed by YouGov, 2% percent of people had quit due to concerns about coronavirus, 8% were trying to quit and 36% had cut down. A large contingent said they were more likely to quit, and former smokers were less likely to to resume. That said, there were a handful who had relapsed during the pandemic.
Staying out of Hospital
Smoking is linked to a number of other health issues, such as heart attacks, strokes, and respiratory problems. Quitting – even after smoking-related problems have developed – will likely improve life expectancy and bring both immediate and longer-term health benefits.
Dr Nick Hopkinson, chairman of ASH and a respiratory specialist at Imperial College London, told the Guardian: “Smoking harms the immune system and our ability to fight off infections. Evidence is growing that smoking is associated with worse outcomes in those admitted to hospital with COVID-19.
“Quitting smoking also rapidly reduces people's risk of other health problems such as heart attacks and strokes. Those are bad whenever they happen, so preventing them is an end in itself, and is especially important at a time like now when everyone is keen to stay out of hospital."
There are some suggestions however, that nicotine – one of the chemicals in cigarettes – could help the body fight COVID-19.
A French study suggested that “current smoking status appears to be a protective factor" against infection from the disease, finding that the number of COVID-19 patients who smoked was far fewer than in the general French population. One theory is that nicotine may stop the virus from reaching cells in the body. Other studies have also discussed the potential of nicotine as a treatment.
The suggestion has prompted a follow-up trial to test the hypothesis. Healthcare workers and patients will wear nicotine patches and then be tested to see if they respond differently to the virus.
The sale of nicotine products has been restricted in France to avoid shortages, and the government is keen to point out that nobody should take up smokingas a preventative measure.