More than a million Britons have quit smoking during the coronavirus crisis, analysis suggests
- University College London and Action on Smoking researchers analysed figures
- Drew on data from rolling YouGov poll from April to late June to come to finding
- Found 1.1million smokers had ditched the habit during that time period
More than a million Britons have quit smoking during the coronavirus crisis, analysis shows.
University College London experts and the charity Action on Smoking drew on data from a rolling poll from mid-April and late June.
Data suggested 1.1million smokers had ditched the habit during that time period and a further 440,000 were in the process of trying to quit.
Hazel Cheeseman, director of policy at ASH, said the Covid-19 pandemic appeared to have been a watershed moment for tobacco users.
She told MailOnline: ‘We don’t know for sure why so many people are giving up smoking. But we feel the threat of coronavirus has motivated people to do things to improve their health.’
The analysis shows younger smokers are quitting at double the rate of older people. Seventeen per cent of those hooked to cigarettes aged 16 to 29 have quit, compared to 7 per cent of over-50s.
The researchers said they were surprised by this finding and believe the disruption to young people’s social lives may have triggered the drop.
Under-30s are more likely to smoke socially when they are with friends at pubs and bars, which were forced to close when the country went into lockdown in March.
Teen smokers who hid their habit from their parents may have given up cigarettes when they were forced to move back home, Ms Cheeseman said.
More than a million Britons have quit smoking during the coronavirus crisis, analysis shows (file)
The analysis drew on a YouGov survey of 10,251 people who were asked about their smoking status between April 15 — the peak of the outbreak — and June 20.
Results from the survey were then extrapolated to the UK population using Office for National Statistics estimates.
Out of the 1.1million thought to have quit, more than 400,000 were people aged 16 to 29 (39 per cent).
A similar number of Brits aged between 30 and 49 ditched cigarettes and 240,000 of those over 50 (23 per cent) gave up smoking.
Respiratory consultant Dr Ruth Sharrock said: ‘Every day of my working life I see the terrible health problems caused by smoking.’
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the ASH charity, said today is the day to ‘wake up and decide’ to stop smoking.
She added: ‘Over a million smokers have succeeded in stopping smoking since Covid-19 hit Britain.’
But she warned that the figure was ‘still nearly five times as many who have carried on smoking’.
Smoking tobacco hardens the arteries and raises the risk of developing lung and heart diseases — two risk factors for coronavirus.
Hospital records indicate that smokers are more likely to fall severely ill with Covid when they catch it.
But, paradoxically, a growing body of research has indicated that cigarette users are actually less likely to contract the virus in the first place.
Many scientists are coming round to the idea that nicotine may be able to block the virus from entering cells, preventing the infection in the first place.
Others say nicotine may control the immune system, stopping it from dangerously over-reacting to infection — a phenomenon found to kill many Covid-19 patients.
It is thought SARS-CoV-2 — the virus behind Covid-19 — enters the body by binding to receptors in the body called ACE-2, found along the respiratory tract.
Some research has suggested nicotine slashes the expression of ACE-2, which would imply smokers have less entry points for the virus to begin with.
Nicotine has also been shown to prevent lung damage in animals with acute respiratory syndrome, a life-threatening condition the coronavirus can lead to.
It’s been suggested that if smokers do see their disease progress while in hospital, it is due to withdrawal from nicotine, exacerbating lung damage.
Another theory is the virus first enters through the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR), which is present around the nose and mouth.
This would explain why the virus causes a loss of taste and smell and in some cases, headaches, dizziness and intense fatigue.
WHY IS SMOKING THOUGHT TO PROTECT AGAINST THE CORONAVIRUS?
Swathes of studies have shown a low prevalence of smokers in hospitals with Covid-19.
If the findings are proven, scientists say it’s likely that it is not cigarettes – filled with thousands of harmful chemicals – that would offer a potential protection, but the nicotine that is beneficial.
A theory flouted by scientists is that nicotine reduces ACE-2 receptors, which are proteins in the body the virus binds to in order to infect cells.
The coronavirus enters cells inside the body via the structures, which coat the surface of some cells, including in the airways and lungs.
If nicotine does lowers ACE-2 expression, it makes it harder for viral particles to gain entry into cells and therefore cause an infection.
On the other hand, other studies show that nicotine enhances the action of the ACE-2 receptor, which in theory, puts smokers at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Other scientists say low levels of ACE-2 expression as a result of nicotine may prevent worse damage from viral infection, and there is no evidence that says higher quantities of ACE-2 receptors increases the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection in the first place.
Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos, from the University of West Attica, Greece, who queried whether nicotine could be a cure for Covid-19 in a paper published on May 9, said: ‘Up-regulation of ACE2, though seemingly paradoxical, may in fact protect patients from severe disease and lung injury.’
A 2008 study in mice found that getting rid of ACE-2 made the animals more likely to suffer severe breathing difficulties when infected with the SARS virus, which is almost identical to Covid-19.
Other scientists have turned their head towards nicotine’s ability to prevent inflammation, where evidence is more robust.
Nicotine has been shown inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as TNF, IL-1 and IL-6, which are involved in promoting an inflammatory response.
A ‘cytokine storm’ is a phenomenon in which an abundance of cytokines are released in response to infection.
Doctors have previously said that it’s often the body’s response to the virus, rather than the virus itself, that plays a major role in how sick a person gets.
A cytokine storm can lead to respiratory failure and the attack of healthy tissues, causing multi-organ failure.
Therefore, the cytokine storm is being looked at as a target for COVID-19 treatment.
‘Nicotine has effects on the immune system that could be beneficial in reducing the intensity of the cytokine storm,’ Dr Farsalinos wrote in Internal and Emergency Medicine.
‘The potential benefits of nicotine…. could explain, at least in part, the increased severity or adverse outcome among smokers hospitalized for COVID-19 since these patients inevitably experience abrupt cessation of nicotine intake during hospitalization.
‘This may be feasible through repurposing already approved pharmaceutical nicotine products such as nicotine patches.’
Dr Nicola Gaibazzi, who recently published findings on MedRxiv of ‘very low’ numbers of smokers in Italian COVID-19 patients, speculates smoke exposure may bolster the immune system.
He said exposure to cigarette smoke reduces the body’s immune system over time, measured by lower inflammatory markers.
Therefore, when smokers are infected with a virus like SARS-CoV-2, their immune system is more ‘tolerant’ and does not overreact.
On the other hand, non-smokers may be more prone to having the sudden and deadly cytokine storm when they are infected with the virus.