Just As I Suspected: Tobacco companies paid to fake data, again

In early 2020, a so-called “study” made the rounds claiming, that “smokers are protected from COVID-19!”  It may have been early in the pandemic, but you didn’t need a PhD to figure out that people with lungs damaged by cigarettes would be more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, not less.

Predictably, the paper has been retracted.  Even more unsurprisingly, the “writers” were taking money from tobacco companies without declaring who was funding them.  Now they’re backpedalling and trying to salvage their careers, claiming, “we weren’t influenced!”  Good luck with that.

Scientific paper claiming smokers less likely to acquire Covid retracted over tobacco industry links

A scientific paper claiming current smokers are 23% less likely to be diagnosed with Covid-19 compared to non-smokers has been retracted by a medical journal, after it was discovered some of the paper’s authors had financial links to the tobacco industry.

[. . .]

The latest edition of the European Respiratory Journal included a retraction notice for the paper, stating: “It was brought to the editors’ attention that two of the authors had failed to disclose potential conflicts of interest at the time of the manuscript’s submission.”

“That is, one of the authors (José M. Mier) at the time had a current and ongoing role in providing consultancy to the tobacco industry on tobacco harm reduction; and another (Konstantinos Poulas) at the time was a principal investigator for the Greek NGO NOSMOKE … a science and innovation hub that has received funding from the Foundation for a Smoke Free World (an organisation funded by the tobacco industry).”

Apparently, the European Respiratory Journal didn’t scrutinize that paper before publishing it.  Are we sure that’s the only time this happened?

Properly researched papers are showing the exact opposite: higher rates of illness and hospitalization

Smokers up to 80% more likely to be admitted to hospital with Covid, study says

Smokers are 60%-80% more likely to be admitted to hospital with Covid-19 and also more likely to die from the disease, data suggests.

A study, which pooled observational and genetic data on smoking and Covid-19 to strengthen the evidence base, contradicts research published at the start of the pandemic suggesting that smoking might help to protect against the virus.

[. . .]

One problem is that most of these studies have been observational, making it difficult to establish whether smoking is the cause of any increased risk, or whether something else is to blame, such as smokers being more likely to come from a lower socioeconomic background.

Dr Ashley Clift at the University of Oxford and colleagues drew on GP health records, Covid-19 test results, hospital admissions data and death certificates to identify associations between smoking and Covid-19 severity from January to August 2020 in 421,469 participants of the UK Biobank study – all of whom had also previously had their genetic makeup analysed.

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 if they became infected.

Here’s a link to the study, published in the British Medical Journal:

Smoking and COVID-19 outcomes: an observational and Mendelian randomisation study using the UK Biobank cohort


Background Conflicting evidence has emerged regarding the relevance of smoking on risk of COVID-19 and its severity.

[. . .]

Results There were 421 469 eligible participants, 1649 confirmed infections, 968 COVID-19-related hospitalisations and 444 COVID-19-related deaths. Compared with never-smokers, current smokers had higher risks of hospitalisation (OR 1.80, 95% CI 1.26 to 2.29) and mortality (smoking 1–9/day: OR 2.14, 95% CI 0.87 to 5.24; 10–19/day: OR 5.91, 95% CI 3.66 to 9.54; 20+/day: OR 6.11, 95% CI 3.59 to 10.42). In MR analyses of 281 105 White British participants, genetically predicted propensity to initiate smoking was associated with higher risks of infection (OR 1.45, 95% CI 1.10 to 1.91) and hospitalisation (OR 1.60, 95% CI 1.13 to 2.27). Genetically predicted higher number of cigarettes smoked per day was associated with higher risks of all outcomes (infection OR 2.51, 95% CI 1.20 to 5.24; hospitalisation OR 5.08, 95% CI 2.04 to 12.66; and death OR 10.02, 95% CI 2.53 to 39.72).

Interpretation Congruent results from two analytical approaches support a causal effect of smoking on risk of severe COVID-19.

It’s well documented that cigarette companies intentionally target poor and non-white neighborhoods in the US, with as much as ten times the advertising you will see in white neighborhoods.  And it’s far worse in countries without well developed anti-tobacco legislation.  From the Truth Initiative:

Tobacco is a social justice issue: Racial and ethnic minorities

While the youth smoking rate has now dropped to a record low of 6 percent, that number does not tell the whole story. Tobacco use disproportionately affects many marginalized populations—including people in low-income communities, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBT individuals and those with mental illness—who have a long and documented history of being targeted by the tobacco industry.

Black people smoke at a similar rate compared to white people, with 16.7 percent smoking every day or some days, but they are more likely to die from a tobacco-related disease than white people. American Indians and Alaska Natives smoke at higher rates than all other racial and ethnic groups, with 21.9 percent reporting that they have smoked every day or some days.

Why do these disparities along lines of race and ethnicity exist? The answer is tied to the many ways that tobacco use disproportionately affects minority groups, who have a long history of being targeted by the tobacco industry.

Tobacco companies have strategically marketed tobacco products to appeal to racial and ethnic communities for decades.

The most striking example is menthol cigarettes. These cigarettes, which are easier to smoke and harder to quit, have long been marketed to the black community. About 85 percent of all black smokers use menthol cigarettes, a rate that is nearly three times higher than white smokers. (More on menthol smoking rates.)

Big Tobacco has sponsored cultural events, targeted direct mail promotions and placed advertising in publications and venues that are popular with black audiences. For example, a 2011 review concluded that Ebony magazine was almost 10 times more likely than People magazine to contain an advertisement for menthol cigarettes. The marketing is so pervasive, that a 2013 study found that black children were three times more likely to recognize advertisements for Newport, the most popular menthol brand among that group, than other children.

This is why (even before the pandemic) tobacco companies have been fighting tooth and nail to prevent a ban on menthol cigarettes and targeted advertising, marketing them directly at Black people.  Nearly all adult smokers began when they were teenagers.  Just like religion, if they don’t addict them while they are young, they never get them.

I don’t expect tobacco companies to be on the hook for any lawsuits despite the fact that their product is most likely to kill the most vulnerable people.  But they should be facing lawsuits and paying compensation for intentionally encouraging and facilitating smoking during lockdowns.  From the Southeast Asian Tobacco Control Alliance:

Tobacco companies thrived during COVID-19 pandemic

During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, transnational tobacco companies continued to sell their cigarettes while stepping-up sales of vape and heated tobacco products. The pandemic may have caused temporary disruption to their business, but they bounced back and the companies made profits.

[. . .]

According to its president, “During this period, we grew share in most of our key markets and captured pricing opportunities. … While we expect the operating environment in 2021 to remain highly uncertain, we expect to continue gaining market share globally both in combustibles and in RRP.”

“Captured pricing opportunities”?  More like captive audiences, targeting bored people with nothing to do.  It’s predatory and racist capitalism at its worst.


  1. robert79 says

    “The editors also acknowledge that at no point was there a question of any scientific misconduct on the part of any of the authors, aside from the failure of two contributing authors to disclose their conflicts of interest relating to the tobacco industry”

    Saying they faked their data is a bit strong. Sloppy statistics on low quality data verifying their confirmation biases is also a plausible explanation.

  2. says

    I remember reading about that study and thinking to myself that it surely must be an outlier of some sort. Even at that time, there were already data showing the exact opposite.