Conflict of interest reporting (for example, receiving money from pharmaceutical or tobacco industry representatives for engaged scientific work) is a fairly common occurrence today. The support of research by pharmaceutical and tobacco companies directly influences the research results, and this affects the drugs that doctors prescribe. This time, the attention of journalists was attracted by the fact that the authors of the sensational articles about the protective role of tobacco in COVID-19 concealed their connection with the industry.
To date, many studies have shown that smoking increases the risks associated with COVID-19. Among them is a major work that reached 17.3 million UK residents, which showed that tobacco smoke consumption is associated with an increase in the risk of death from the effects of coronavirus by 14%. Today, the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that smoking is a risk factor for coronavirus infection. However, a number of early publications led people to believe the opposite.
In the early months of the pandemic, information was spread about the positive role of smoking. Several studies have claimed that it has a protective effect against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Investigative journalism found that the authors of the most high-profile studies had links to the tobacco industry that they did not identify when they published their papers.
For the first time, the possible protective effect of nicotine was widely discussed in early April 2020 after the publication of two French studies (these were preprints not published in scientific journals). Reporters found that the laboratory of Jean-Pierre Changeux, co-author of one of these studies, received grants from the Tobacco Research Council in the 1990s to fund research that raised doubts about the dangers of smoking. Sangje himself assures that since then he has not received “tobacco” money.
At the end of April, the journal Toxicology Reports first published a publication on “tobacco theory”. It was formulated by the Greek scientist Konstantinos Farsalinos. He was the first scientist to publish – even before the French – a preprint on the possible protective role of nicotine against coronavirus, but it went unnoticed. Later, he spoke at the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum, where he was in the same expert group with the scientific director of British American Tobacco.
Farsalinos’ co-author in Toxicology Reports, Konstantinos Poulas, worked in a laboratory that received funding from Nobacco, the Greek e-cigarette market leader and distributor for British American Tobacco. Poulas previously received research money for the Foundation for a Smoke Free World, founded by Philip Morris Internationa. Both Poulas and Farsalinos have actively published articles on the beneficial effects of e-cigarettes for several years. Both deny receiving funds from Nobacco for articles on COVID-19.
In July 2020, Poulas and Jose Mayer (Jose Mier), who also previously worked as a consultant for cigarette manufacturers, published an article in the European Respiratory Journal that smokers are less likely to get COVID-19. In April 2021, the magazine withdrew the article because the authors concealed their links to tobacco companies.
The Foundation for a Smoke Free World, as Horel and Koitser learned, had invested heavily in the development of the nicotine hypothesis. In June 2020 alone, she established a £ 900,000 research grant “to better understand the link between smoking and nicotine use with COVID-19.”