A scientific paper that claimed current smokers are 23% less likely to be diagnosed with Covid-19 when compared to non-smokers has been retracted by a medical journal after it was revealed that the studies authors had financial links to the tobacco industry.
The World Health Organization has warned the exact opposite, in fact, claiming that because smoking impairs lung function there is actually an increased risk of severe symptoms if one gets a respiratory infection, like the Covid-19 virus.
The paper was initially published in July last year by the European Respiratory Journal, and it claimed to have “found that current smoking was not associated with adverse outcome in patients admitted to the hospital with Covid. Smokers are at a significantly lower risk of acquiring the virus.”
The latest edition of the European Respiratory Journal published 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 company 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).”
NOSMOKE is based in Greece and develops vaping products as well as promotes e-cigarette research from the tobacco industry. In the paper itself, Mier, Poulas and their co-authors claimed they had no conflict of interest when it came to their role in the study.
The retraction notice also claimed that the authors of the original study did not agree with the decision. “While failure to disclose a potential conflict of interest was not normally sufficient grounds for retraction, the editors felt the decision was justified based on the nature of the undisclosed relationship, and in the context of the sensitive subject matter presented”.
“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.”
Konstantinos Farsalinos is the senior author of the original paper who released a statement in which he claimed that the conflicts of interest were “irrelevant to the study’s main aims and objectives.”
“Additionally, I proposed to publicly release the full dataset and the statistical script so that all findings could be independently verified. The editors declined. I requested my proposal to be mentioned in the retraction letter, but that was also rejected by the editors. I disagree with the retraction and I consider it unfair and unsubstantiated.”
Dr. Sarah White, who is also the director of the Quit Victoria program, disagreed, claiming that the retraction was the right decision.
“We really rely on research in being able to take a dispassionate look at the data but also the interpretation of that data. The reader needs to know that the authors have some potential or actual conflict of interest, or they’ve actually been involved with the industry. There was no strong evidence to support the claim that smokers are less likely to get Covid.
The review of the original study found that “In the context of smoking and Covid-19, poor data collection can lead to several erroneous conclusions. If patients with missing smoking data are not eliminated from the total pool, smokers may be wrongly underrepresented. Furthermore, it is difficult to get accurate history from patients who are either intubated or in respiratory failure.
“If data from these patients are missing, and these patients are not removed from the denominator, it can give a false impression that smokers are less likely to develop severe disease. Second, it must be noted that most published studies have not reported the duration (years) or frequency (number of cigarettes) of smoking, hence these cannot be accounted for.”
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.