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Smokers much more likely to get severe Covid-19 and die, say UK scientists

Think smoking protects you from Covid-19? Think again, say UK researchers.
Think smoking protects you from Covid-19? Think again, say UK researchers.
Image: 123rf/yurolaitsalbert

Smokers are more likely to get serious Covid-19 and die of the disease, a first-of-its-kind study has found.

UK researchers, who reported their discovery this week in the British medical journal Thorax, said active smokers have an 80% higher chance of needing to be admitted to hospital after a Covid-19 infection than those who do not smoke.

One in three SA men and one in 14 women smoke cigarettes regularly, according to the Tobacco Control Data Initiative dashboard.

Cigarette sales were controversially banned between March 27 and August 18 2020 under lockdown regulations, and co-operative governance minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma argued in court that the ban was needed to reduce the incidence of smoking and the risks posed by Covid-19 to smokers and to those exposed to cigarette smoke.

The high court in Cape Town ruled that the ban limited smokers' rights to human dignity because it denied them the choice of buying tobacco products.

In an editorial linked to the new research, Anthony Laverty and Christopher Millet of Imperial College London said the suggestion early in the pandemic that smoking may protect against Covid-19 was always improbable.

“A respiratory pandemic should be the ideal moment to focus collective minds on tobacco control,” they said.

Lead researcher Dr Ashley Clift said the results strongly suggest that smoking is related to a risk of severe Covid-19.

“Just as smoking affects your risk of heart disease, different cancers, and all those other conditions we know smoking is linked to, it appears that it’s the same for Covid-19. So now might be as good a time as any to quit cigarettes and quit smoking,” he said.

The study analysed eight months of UK hospital records involving 421,469 patients - the so-called UK Biobank cohort - for a link between smokers, Covid-19 and severe infections.

Almost two-thirds (60%) of participants had never smoked, over a third (37%) were former smokers and only 4% were current smokers.

Among current smokers, most (71%) were light or moderate smokers (1-19 cigarettes/day); only 29% were heavy smokers (20+/day).

Compared with those who had never smoked, current smokers were 80% more likely to be admitted to hospital and significantly more likely to die from Covid-19.


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