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Abstract Background Smoking is a risk factor for most respiratory infections, but it may protect against SARS-CoV-2 infection. The objective was to assess whether smoking and e-cigarette use were associated with severe COVID-19. Methods This cohort ran from 24 January 2020 until 30 April 2020 at the height of the first wave of the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic in England. It comprised 7 869 534 people representative of the population of England with smoking status, demographic factors and diseases recorded by general practitioners in the medical records, which were linked to hospital and death data. The outcomes were COVID-19-associated hospitalization, intensive care unit (ICU) admission and death. The associations between smoking and the outcomes were assessed with Cox proportional hazards models, with sequential adjustment for confounding variables and indirect causal factors (body mass index and smoking-related disease). Results Compared with never smokers, people currently smoking were at lower risk of COVID-19 hospitalization, adjusted hazard ratios (HRs) were 0.64 (95% confidence intervals 0.60 to 0.69) for <10 cigarettes/day, 0.49 (0.41 to 0.59) for 10–19 cigarettes/day, and 0.61 (0.49 to 0.74) for ≥20 cigarettes/day. For ICU admission, the corresponding HRs were 0.31 (0.24 to 0.40), 0.15 (0.06 to 0.36), and 0.35 (0.17 to 0.74) and death were: 0.79 (0.70 to 0.89), 0.66 (0.48 to 0.90), and 0.77 (0.54 to 1.09) respectively. Former smokers were at higher risk of severe COVID-19: HRs: 1.07 (1.03 to 1.11) for hospitalization, 1.17 (1.04 to 1.31) for ICU admission, and 1.17 (1.10 to 1.24) for death. All-cause mortality was higher for current smoking than never smoking, HR 1.42 (1.36 to 1.48). Among e-cigarette users, the adjusted HR for e-cigarette use and hospitalization with COVID-19 was 1.06 (0.88 to 1.28), for ICU admission was 1.04 (0.57 to 1.89, and for death was 1.12 (0.81 to 1.55). Conclusions Current smoking was associated with a reduced risk of severe COVID-19 but the association with e-cigarette use was unclear. All-cause mortality remained higher despite this possible reduction in death from COVID-19 during an epidemic of SARS-CoV-2. Findings support investigating possible protective mechanisms of smoking for SARS-CoV-2 infection, including the ongoing trials of nicotine to treat COVID-19.

Original publication




Journal article


International Journal of Epidemiology


Oxford University Press (OUP)

Publication Date





1062 - 1072