My favourite warning photograph on cigarette packets is the one of the lady coughing up blood into a handkerchief. There is something terribly beguiling about the woman. I much prefer it to the chap blowing smoke into a baby’s face or the man staring forlornly at his own, apparently malfunctioning, penis.
When these images were first introduced I used to find it fun to collect them, much as I did football cards as a kid. It got to the point where the woman at the cigarette counter in my local supermarket would keep the rare ones back for me. “Would you like the man with a hole in his throat, the bloke with no legs, or the woman standing by her husband’s grave?”
Anyway, I would like to suggest to the government a new image for cigarette packets. A photograph of a smoker, happily puffing away, in perfectly good health, with a very smug expression on his face — as thousands of non-smokers succumb to the ravages of Covid-19. I accept that this would be a controversial move. There is no controversy about the science behind it, though. Every single cross-sectional study I have seen of Covid-19 patients has showed that smokers are far less likely to contract the disease than non-smokers.
The first report came from China, where fewer than 2% of those with the illness were smokers in a country where slightly below 30% of the population smokes.
A study of almost 500 patients at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris showed still more remarkable outcomes. Only about 8% of Covid patients smoked (compared with about 25% of the population). The study concluded: “Those who smoke every day are much less likely to develop a symptomatic or severe infection with Sars-CoV-2 compared with the general population. The effect is significant. It divides the risk by five for ambulatory patients and by four for those admitted to hospital. We rarely see this in medicine,” it added.
So significant was it that doctors in France are now treating Covid patients with nicotine patches. The latest study — of three million people in Israel — concluded that the risk to smokers from Covid-19 was half of that for the non-smoking population and that smokers who did contract the disease were at no greater risk of it all ending badly. It seems counterintuitive, and yet it isn’t, really. Nicotine is known to inhibit the onset of a good few diseases — Parkinson’s, for example, and several brands of cancer.
“The effect is significant.... We rarely see this in medicine.”
But my argument is not that we should all start smoking to ward off Covid. That would be utterly ludicrous. I am well aware that the ramifications of my prodigious intake of Superkings will be far more injurious, in the long run, than contracting a disease that is, in the great scheme of things, comparatively ineffectual in its lethality. I have no doubts about the dangers of smoking and it is pleasing to have my certainty reinforced, on a daily basis, by looking at that lady on my cigarette packet, with her unpleasant handkerchief.
My point is this: while we are told we are being led through this strange pandemic by science, by hard facts, we are not and never have been. The science and those awkward things, facts, are mediated by obfuscation, expediency, incompetence, stupidity, prejudice and hubris — on the part of our politicians and our scientists (who are also that most fallible of things, human).
So it was that back in February, when I first wrote about smoking and Covid (if there’s a bandwagon, I like to be on it early), the health professionals were insisting that Covid would be far worse for smokers and we should give up now. The sentiment was echoed by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who said it was “absolutely clear” that smokers would really cop it. The opposite was true.
But then, that has been the story all along. We were told, apparently by scientists, that quarantines and a restriction on people entering the country would have no effect on the spread of the virus; now quarantine has been introduced. We were told facemasks were no use; soon they will be mandatory. We were told early on that sporting occasions did not hasten the spread; then all sporting occasions were cancelled. Going to work, or school, last week was a bad idea; this week it is fine, even though the infection rates remain stubbornly high.
If there is science anywhere in this mess, it has been fiddled with until it is not science at all. Now, can someone give me a light?