Tobacco and the Bug

I smoked my last cigarette when I was about ten. My Father, who was a fanatical sportsman caught me and gave me a serious thrashing plus a plethora of warnings as to how smoking would affect my fitness.

Years later at the age of eighteen, I was travelling down Africa with my first wife and decided that my youthful looks would hinder my chances of employment in South Africa, our intended destination. I bought a pipe in Lusaka in the hope that it would make me look older and have enjoyed pipe smoking ever since.

Over the past few decades, I have watched in some bemusement as Britain turned against smokers in general but never once have I contemplated giving up my pipe. When times are bad, it gives comfort and even when life is good, it adds to my enjoyment of the day.

I don’t suppose it came as a surprise to anyone that as soon as the Covid-19 crisis broke, the anti-smoking lobby stepped up its campaign against tobacco, warning that smokers were at particular risk. 

Among the first out of the traps was the Health Secretary, Mathew Hancock, who said: ‘It is abundantly clear from the research into previous coronaviruses that smoking makes the impact of a coronavirus worse.’ 

He doesn’t seem to be abundantly clear about anything else to do with this virus damnit! And to hear him sounding so dogmatic about it rather amazed me, particularly as nothing is abundantly clear about Covid-19. Since there has been no mass testing in the UK, we have no idea how many of us are infected with the virus, or how many have recovered from it. We don’t know, with any degree of accuracy, our chances of survival if we get it. We don’t know how many have died because of it, rather than just with it. 

The only thing that seems more certain by the day is that those selfless people among us who are constantly exposed to the virus – front-line health workers, bus drivers and supermarket workers – are more at risk than the rest of us. Mr Hancock should increase his efforts to help them rather than having a go at an increasingly small minority.

It is also far from abundantly clear that smokers are in greater danger than anyone else. On the contrary, as British artist David Hockney suggested in a letter recently, smokers may actually be safer – safer even than those infuriating health fanatics we see jogging around the park, panting and spreading their toxic droplets to anyone unfortunate enough to get in their way. 

I won’t go into the science, because frankly it is way beyond me, but the fact is that several studies conducted all over the world have found that smokers are significantly under-represented among those who have succumbed to coronavirus. In China, where more than a quarter of the population smoke, researchers found that only 6.5 per cent of those hospitalised with Covid-19 were smokers. 

In the U.S. (whose figures are probably more trustworthy) the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that a mere 1.3 per cent of those who have tested positive for coronavirus are smokers, although 14 per cent of America’s adult population are said to smoke. Various explanations have been offered for this. 

One, popular in the anti-tobacco lobby, is that we smokers smell so revolting that nobody wants to come within half a mile of us, never mind two metres. What rubbish! When I am smoking my pipe, people breathe in deeply and compliment me on my choice of tobacco.

Other ‘experts’ tell us that doctors have either been too busy to ask patients whether or not they smoke, or that sufferers have been too sick to answer the question. 

Meanwhile, scientists struggling for an explanation suggest that nicotine may offer some protection through the way it affects the ‘ACE2 receptors’ in our lungs. I have no idea whether this is correct or not, but it certainly gives me hope. If there’s even a grain of truth in Hockney’s theory, I strongly urge medics to set aside their anti-smoking prejudice and examine precisely how nicotine may act to combat the virus. 

That way they may even come up with the elusive treatment we all yearn for. 

As for me, I have a parcel of Princetown Peach tobacco being delivered today and will carry on puffing away through the lockdown, hoping along with Hockney that in some mysterious way my lovely old pipes may keep me safe from the bug. 

Back in the real world I suppose, we are in lockdown for another three weeks but if the government do have an exit strategy, their nightly Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse aren’t telling the rest of us.

Is this all feasible I wonder or will this additional lockdown prove to be an unnecessary disruption to the lives of more than 60million Britons, piling up future physical, mental and financial problems that will themselves inevitably lead to more deaths than we are saving now? The answer to these questions is undoubtedly ‘Yes.’

Over recent days a large number of scientists have expressed concern that the initial data used by Professor Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College London – whose shocking forecast last month of 250,000 UK coronavirus deaths without a draconian lockdown allegedly persuaded Bunter Johnson to impose this quarantine – may have been flawed. ‘This research is being given a kind of religious status, like tablets of stone from the mountain,’ Professor John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for North West England, has warned. In his view, the Government is guilty of relying upon a ‘little clique’ and failing to consult a wider pool of academics.

Professor Carl Heneghan and Dr Tom Jefferson at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine have suggested that the draconian restrictions are ‘going to bankrupt all of us and our descendants.’

Of course they are and what the current situation boils down to is this: ‘Is economic meltdown a price worth paying to halt or delay what is already amongst us?’

This is the question the Government must now answer. Deaths so far have remained largely limited to the at-risk groups while the entire population has suffered the terrible consequences of total shutdown.

Just yesterday, the Office for National Statistics revealed that one in five coronavirus-related deaths were in the age group of 80 to 84 years. Indeed, in terms of age group, the highest proportion of deaths due to coronavirus were in the 75 to 84-year-old range and that includes me with or without my pipe.

If the massive funding and resources currently being poured into the NHS and into supporting the economy were switched to protecting the most vulnerable group, the crippling future we are currently facing can surely be avoided. The authorities could pursue a policy of effective isolation and mass testing within the vulnerable communities, rigorous testing of all carers and workers, and extensive provision of high-quality critical care where required.

Meanwhile, antibody tests – when they become available and reliable – will show people who have had the infection but who are now immune. This may provide a widening pool of carers as time goes on. I believe that taking a hard line approach, but only in this smaller population could work.

Successfully implemented, coronavirus-related deaths could realistically be limited to a very small number, potentially even fewer than a typical winter flu – and we would save a significant portion of the Job Retention Scheme billions of pounds.

Surely this is just simple common sense or is that too much for politicians to accept?

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