Smoking, coronavirus, and the deaths of Chinese men

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Good afternoon, readers.

What a week it’s been for coronavirus news. My colleague Erika Fry eloquently summed up the latest updates from public health organizations about the death and infection toll from the pathogen (and, given the ever-evolving nature of this story, the numbers have already shifted, with more than 2,000 now reported dead).

I think one of the most interesting developments is the growing evidence that China’s massive smoking rate is, at best, making the outbreak more difficult to contain—and at worst increasing the number of infections and deaths among certain populations.

The demographic at the highest risk is Chinese men, especially middle-aged to older patients. It’s well known that China is one of the world’s largest consumers of tobacco products. But while reporting this story, I learned some eye-popping facts about just how deep the smoking problem extends in the country.

For instance: More than 52% of Chinese males aged 15 and over are regular smokers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), compared with just 2.7% of females.

So what does this have to do with coronavirus? For one, it might help explain why the mortality rate from the pathogen is so much higher among men (2.8%) than in women (1.7%).

“The question is whether smoking has a direct impact on the coronavirus,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, tells me. “And preliminary evidence suggests that may be the case.”

That’s due to a combination of factors that Hotez and Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, explained to me—including the higher prevalence, in smokers, of a certain biomarker that the current coronavirus strain clings to.

Smoking can also undermine the immune system and increase the risk for underlying respiratory illnesses that are exacerbated by coronavirus. In short, the habit could potentially create a perfect public health storm.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com
@the_sy_guy

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