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Smokers Hospitalized Less Often for COVID-19

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April 29, 2020 - Today in the world of coronavirus news:

Few of those hospitalized with the coronavirus are smokers, and researchers are trying to understand why, according to VICE.

One hypothesis is that nicotine, which has anti-inflammatory properties, may interfere with the way that COVID-19 causes an overreaction of the immune system.

The hypothesis comes from Konstantinos Farsalinos, a cardiologist in Greece who focuses on tobacco-use reduction. Farsalinos noticed that few COVID-19 patients who were hospitalized in China were smokers, though about half of men in the country smoke.

Farsalinos and colleagues wrote a new paper available as a preprint and scheduled to be published in Internal and Emergency Medicine. They found that among 13 studies in China with nearly 6,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, the rate of smokers ranged from 1.4% to 12.6%. No studies recorded e-cigarette use.

“The results were remarkably consistent across all studies and were recently verified in the first case series of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.,” the authors wrote, calling for an “urgent investigation.”

Of course, Farsalinos doesn't recommend that people should begin smoking simply to attempt to avoid a severe case of COVID-19. Smoking is still a leading cause of preventable death across the globe.

“We all know that smoking is obviously bad for you,” Raymond Niaura of New York University told VICE. Niaura co-authored the paper with Farsalinos. “It follows logically that smokers would be way worse off. I would think that too. But I've been surprised: That's not the story we're necessarily seeing.”

In France, researchers plan to test nicotine patches on hospital workers and patients who tested positive for COVID-19, according to The Guardian.

Another preprint paper, based on a study in Paris, found data similar to that seen in China. Among 350 people admitted to the hospital, about 4.4% were regular smokers.

Data in the U.S. look similar as well, according to the CDC. Among 7,000 hospitalized patients, about 1.3% were current smokers and 2.3% were former smokers, though about 14% of the country smokes.

Still, researchers have emphasized that the correlation could be due to other things. Maybe smokers are dying before they go to the hospital, or maybe smokers are not classified correctly in hospital records, according to VICE.

For now, scientists and public health experts are studying the hypotheses as quickly as they can. Public health agencies continue to encourage people to quit smoking and vaping during the pandemic since COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that can severely affect the lungs.

The FDA, for instance, issued an update on Tuesday that said smokers may be more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19.

“There's never been a better time to quit smoking,” the FDA said.