Scientific paper claiming smokers less likely to contract COVID-19 retracted over tobacco industry links

EDMONTON — A research paper claiming smokers are 23 per cent less likely to contract COVID-19 than non-smokers has been retracted by a European medical journal after it was revealed the study authors had financial ties to the tobacco industry.

The study, published in the European Respiratory Journal in July 2020, alleged that a current smoking habit was not associated with adverse outcomes in COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital, and claimed that smokers were at a lower risk of acquiring the disease altogether.

The research also cited other studies claiming that infection was less prevalent in smokers or tobacco users.

But following the publication of the study, it was revealed that two of the authors, Jose M. Mier and Konstantinos Poulas, failed to disclose their close ties to the tobacco industry.

At the time, Mier had a current and ongoing role in providing consultancy to the tobacco industry on tobacco harm reduction, and Poulas acted as a principal investigator for Greek NGO NOSMOKE, a science and innovation hub that has received funding from the tobacco industry.

The European Respiratory Journal has since retracted the paper, noting if the conflicts of interest had been disclosed during submission, “the editors would not have considered the article for publication.”

“The European Respiratory Society, as a leading medical organisation in the respiratory field whose mission is to promote lung health and alleviate suffering from respiratory disease, has bylaws in place that do not permit individuals with ongoing relationships with the tobacco industry to participate in its activities,” reads the retraction notice.

Although the journal notes that “at no point was there a question of any scientific misconduct on the part of any of the authors,” both Mier and Poulas have rejected the journal’s retraction.

WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY ABOUT COVID-19 AND SMOKING?

Since the onset of the pandemic, there have been numerous studies related to COVID-19 and smoking, and sifting through them provides a confusing picture of just how a history of smoking affects a COVID-19 patient’s prognosis – or their chances of catching the virus in the first place.

Many studies have shown that when smokers end up in hospital with COVID-19, they have a much higher chance of developing severe complications, or dying.

But at least three studies have found a lower percentage of smokers among COVID-19 patients than the percentage of smokers in the general population.

For example, two separate European studies, one based in France and one in Italy, reported low levels of smokers among COVID-19 patients in April 2020. Both studies suggested this could point to smoking providing some sort of “protection.”

But experts say the limited scope of the studies may have skewed the results.

In May 2020, a U.K. study gained enormous traction online after numbers were unearthed from the sea of data that seemed to imply current smokers were dying of COVID-19 less often than non-smokers. However, that particular segment of data was largely taken out of context and failed to account for other risk factors.

The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains that smoking any kind of tobacco reduces lung capacity and may increase the risk and severity of respiratory infections like COVID-19. It also notes that the majority of research suggests smokers are at a higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 outcomes.

– With files from Alexandra Mae Jones 


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