How harm reduction advocates and the tobacco industry have used the pandemic to promote nicotine

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Scientific papers suggesting smokers are less likely to get sick with covid-19 discredited as links to tobacco industry, survey by BMJ today.

Journalists Stéphane Horel and Ties Keyzer report undisclosed financial links between certain scientific authors and the tobacco and electronic cigarette industry in a number of covid research articles.

In April 2020, two French studies (shared as preprints before the formal peer review) suggested that nicotine may have a protective effect against covid-19 – dubbed the “nicotine hypothesis”.

The stories grabbed headlines around the world and raised fears that decades of tobacco control could be jeopardized.

Since then, it has been categorically disproved that smoking protects against covid-19, and several studies show that smoking, adjusted for age and gender, is associated with an increased risk of death from covid-19.

Horel and Keyzer point out that one of the study’s authors, Professor Jean-Pierre Changeux, is used to receiving funding from the Council for Tobacco Research, whose purpose was to fund research that would cast doubt on the dangers of smoking and would focus on the positive effects of nicotine.

From 1995 to 1998, tobacco industry documents show that the Changeux lab received $ 220,000 (£ 155,000; € 180,000) from the Council for Tobacco Research.

Changeover insured BMJ that it has not received any funding related “directly or indirectly to the tobacco industry” since the 1990s.

At the end of April 2020, Greek researcher Konstantinos Farsalinos was the first to officially publish the “nicotine hypothesis” in a journal, in an editorial in Toxicology Reports.

The newspaper’s editor, Aristidis Tsatsakis, was listed as a co-author, as was A Wallace Hayes, a member of the science advisory board of Philip Morris International in 2013, who was a paid consultant to the tobacco company.

Another co-author is Konstantinos Poulas, Head of the Molecular Biology and Immunology Laboratory at the University of Patras, where Farsalinos is affiliated.

The laboratory has received funding from Nobacco, market leader in Greek e-cigarettes and exclusive distributor of British American Tobacco nicotine delivery systems since 2018.

Neither Farsalinos nor Poulas have ever declared this Nobacco funding in their published scientific papers.

Yet Horel and Keyzer show that two grants were awarded in 2018 by the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World – a non-profit association created by Philip Morris International in 2017 – to the “Patras Science Park”.

The grants, the amounts of which are not disclosed on the foundation’s website but which tax documents show amounted to nearly € 83,000, went to NOSMOKE, a university start-up incubator run by Poulas, which markets an “organic” vaping product.

Last month, the European Respiratory Journal retracted an article co-authored by Poulas and Farsalinos, among others, after two authors did not disclose conflicts of interest.

The retracted article found that “current smoking was not associated with adverse outcomes” in patients admitted to hospital with covid, and it claimed that smokers had a significantly lower risk of contracting the virus.

The foundation has invested heavily in the covid-19 / nicotine hypothesis, say Horel and Keyzer.

In June 2020, he set aside € 900,000 for research “to better understand the associations between smoking and / or nicotine consumption, and infection and covid-19 outcomes”.

His request said the pandemic offered “both an opportunity and a challenge for individuals to quit smoking or switch to reduced risk nicotine products.”

They conclude: “In 2021, in the midst of a global pandemic of lung disease, tobacco industry figures are increasingly pushing the narrative of nicotine as a solution to an addiction they themselves have created, with the aim of persuading policy makers to give them ample space to market their “smoke-free” products. This makes studies of the hypothetical benefits of nicotine most welcome. “

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External peer review? Yes

Type of evidence: Investigation

Topic: Research Integrity

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