It is fitting that the counter-intuitive research hypothesising that smoking and other forms of nicotine use could lessen the chances of contracting COVID-19 as well as lessen the virus’s intensity has emerged from France. Smoking in the 21st century is, given the widespread knowledge of the harm it causes, a dark challenge posed to the only existential reality — death. In much of the world, smoking is vilified and smokers often feel shunned. They have to find corners outdoors — in the sun, rain and snow — in hazy, windowless rooms at airports, even forced out of their own homes to keep up with their addiction. Yet, in France, unlike in the anglophone world, there is still some acceptance of the act and the country still has one of the largest smoking populations in the world.
In its very creation, the French Republic straddled the paradoxes between freedom, equality and death; its revolution was built on both fraternity and the guillotine. Later, the horrors of the last great global crisis — World War II — birthed existentialism. In the upbeat American century, this philosophy seemed bleak — in return for freedom, the fantasies of religion, heaven and utopia had to be cast aside. The only thing that mattered was existence. Now, during the pandemic, it has given the world another paradox, and sidelined smokers something to smirk about.
Smoking is bad for you, but like an antibiotic, it could save your life. French government research institutes CNRS and Inserm, the hospital network Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris, Sorbonne University, Collège de France, and Institut Pasteur have found that smokers are significantly less at risk statistically than the general population. In France, there was a rush for cigarettes and other forms of nicotine delivery among non-smokers once the research came out last month. The statistical chance at ensuring existence seems to have diminished fears of the long-term risks of smoking and the decades of moralising asking people to quit. Turns out, the existentialists were right.