lockdown learning: #12 An ironic trade-off

A short series of 2 minute observations…

For almost all of us at the moment, our biggest health headache is Covid-19. Especially those of us of an older disposition are seeking to avoid meeting the virus.

However, we are also of a generation that grew up being told year-in-year-out that smoking was really bad for your health: something that will impact not just your lungs and throat but also your heart -reducing your life expectancy and increasing your morbidity.

Smoking is a key cause of COPD, one of the big risk factors for the seriousness of Covid-19. As a result, in the face of the virus, both UK and US governments have stepped up their advice to give up smoking.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that quite a number of scientific studies seem to suggest that smoking may actually protect you from Covid-19!

The evidence is not definitive. But in the USA, France and China, where many adults smoke, the number of hospital admittances are heavily skewed to non-smokers. In multiple studies in China the proportions are 6.5% vs 26.6%. In the US,  in a study by America’s Centers for Disease Control,  for 7,000 people who tested positive for coronavirus, they discovered that only 1.3% were smokers vs 14% of the population.

These sort of results prompted Professor Francois Balloux,(UCL) to say that ‘the evidence for a protective effect of smoking (or nicotine) against COVID-19 is bizarrely strong… actually far stronger than for any drug trialled at this stage…’

There is even an understanding of how this might be the case – as both virus and smoking interact with the ACE-2 receptors which play a critical role in the infection.

This suggests a question – is it safer to smoke or not smoke at the moment?

Its an ironic question but a great example of a popular economics concept – a trade-off (and probably one a better statistician than I could answer at least in a probabilistic manner).

In this case the trade-off seems to be between short and long term. In the short term (before I become addicted and my health badly damaged) I might be better off smoking to protect myself from Covid-19 . However, if I avoid the virus and do not give up quickly I am likely to be killed and my health battered in the long term.

What will I do? … probably stick to not smoking.

I am sure I am with the majority. Even though, as perhaps our most famous economist, Keynes said, “in the long run we are all dead”, the high probability of the health impact of smoking is much greater than the low probability that I will get a serious dose of Covid-19.

… I hope.