Summary of this article’s main points:
- Recent research into coronavirus suggests that nicotine may have a protective effect against the virus…
- But this is very preliminary science and has many flaws.
- Tobacco may have some antiviral and antimicrobial properties, but smoking it is likely to cancel out any benefits.
- If you are still convinced by the coronavirus research, use nicotine gum or patches, or traditional tobacco snuffs, for the lowest risk.
Tobacco, in particular Nicotiana rustica (ak.a. mapacho), has been used medicinally by the indigenous peoples of the Americas to treat a wide range of conditions for at least a millennia. The earliest reported medicinal use of tobacco involved insufflation of powdered tobacco snuff through a blowpipe.
The practice of using shamanic tobacco snuffs (referred to as rapé, hapeh, or rapeh) has also surged alongside the global expansion of ayahuasca, with increasing numbers of Western neo-shamanic practitioners embracing this ancient indigenous healing ritual.
Much like the early European explorers embrace of Nicotiana as a panacea for everything in the 16th century, modern shamanic practitioners are crediting tobacco for healing a wide range of ailments, proclaiming its health benefits and embracing its use as a prophylactic against bacterial and viral infection, including the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.
Indeed, scientific research has shown that tobacco does have some antimicrobial properties. But can tobacco be used to treat, prevent, or cure COVID-19?
One preliminary French study suggests that the use of rapé or mapacho might be a significant protector against COVID-19 infection and prevent an infected person from entering into the “lethal phase” of COVID-19.
Unsurprisingly, this preliminary study has been going viral in shamanic communities online.
But how reliable is this study?
And should we be snuffing more rapé to stay healthy?
In order to fully understand the health benefits of shamanic tobacco use, and whether or not it can boost our immune system or protect us from COVID-19, we’ll need to explore:
- The types of shamanic healing practices that use tobacco as medicine
- The antimicrobial properties of the tobacco plant
- The health effects of smoking tobacco, vs smokeless tobacco use
- The difference between Western snuffs vs indigenous shamanic snuff
- The likelihood that any one of these practices can mitigate infection from SARS-CoV-2
Let’s take a deeper look.
What is Shamanic Tobacco Use?
In shamanic practices, especially in South America, tobacco is used differently than in the West. One of the most noticeable differences is the relative lack of processing, which contributes to the toxicity of cigarettes in the West.
There are several main uses of tobacco in South American shamanism:
- Strong tobacco (called mapacho) is smoked in cigars and often not inhaled into the lungs, but used to blow smoke over people or objects to purify and protect.
- A tobacco purge is carried out, where drinking a large volume of tobacco juice/tea causes a violent reaction that can expel parasites from the body.
- Tobacco juice is inhaled through the nose, usually through a small spoon or shell that is passed around from person to person.
- Tobacco dissolved in water is squeezed out over the person’s head, resulting in a “tobacco bath.”
- Tobacco snuff (called rapé) is insufflated, usually through a pipe that the shaman uses to blow the snuff into the participant’s nose.
- Tobacco salves are sometimes rubbed on wounds to promote healing or protect from infection (Charlton, 2004).
- Some ayahuasca recipes include tobacco leaves.
These approaches are variously used to either purge the body of negative energies and illnesses, protect the body from harm before or after another plant medicine ceremony, or send participants on their own journeys with plant spirits.
Tobacco is a fundamental plant spirit for many indigenous American cultures, and is highly revered. In Amazonian traditions, shamans train with tobacco in a similar way to ayahuasca; fasting with the plant and spending time becoming familiar with the spirit.
It has been used as a sacred and healing medicine for thousands of years. For many shamans, the addictive processed cigarette smoking seen in the West is far removed from their spiritual usage of the plant.
But are the protective shamanic effects corroborated by science?
And is there evidence that tobacco when used in these traditional ways can confer antiviral or antimicrobial properties onto the human consuming it?
Tobacco’s Antimicrobial Properties – What We Know & Don’t Know
The tobacco plant, which was mistakenly named by Western explorers after the pipe that indigenous Americans smoked it through (tabaco), mostly refers to the two main species of the Nicotiana genus: Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica. Tobacco was used by indigenous peoples to treat various illnesses, and to prevent disease; as well as for its pleasurable effects (Charlton, 2004).
The tobacco plant contains a number of antimicrobial and antiviral molecules, which prevent the growth of fungus, parasites, viruses and bacteria on its leaves. The cembranoids and polyphenols are two of the most important classes of protective molecules in the plant, mainly possessing insecticidal, antifungal and antimicrobial properties (Yan et al, 2019; Wang et al, 2008).
Nicotine itself, the main addictive molecule in tobacco, repels herbivores (Steppuhn et al, 2004), but there has not been much research into whether it has antifungal, antiviral or antimicrobial properties for the tobacco plant.
Can Tobacco’s Antimicrobial Properties Transfer to Humans?
When talking about any plant medicine, it’s important to know the difference between the native properties of the plant itself in its natural environment, and what happens when humans ingest it.
For example, many plants naturally have antifungal and antimicrobial properties that protect them from many harmful infections. But ingesting the plant (whether through eating, smoking, or insufflating) may not have the same healing properties on your body, or protect you from infections in the same way.
Also, while some compounds in tobacco plants may have protective properties, the plants still suffer from viral diseases frequently!
The same principle is true in humans: if tobacco does have medicinal properties in our bodies, it won’t be equally protective against everything.
What we do know is that despite the large number of protective molecules in the plant, when tobacco is smoked these beneficial properties don’t seem to be transferred to the human.
In fact, tobacco smoke actually lessens the body’s ability to fight off bacterial infections (Moore et al, 2019), as well as causing a vast array of harms (see below).
This presents the possibility that while some compounds in the tobacco plant could have medicinal properties, smoking them is unlikely to be healthy.
Tobacco Confusion & COVID-19
One of the factors bolstering the viral appeal of tobacco in neo-shamanic communities are conflicting statements by health professionals and agencies on the risks and benefits of tobacco consumption in reducing COVID-19 infection.
On April 8, 2020, Dr. Jean-Francois Delfraissy, President of the COVID-19 Scientific Council in France, claimed that the vast majority of COVID-19 patients in critical condition are non-smokers. The immunology doctor suggested the nicotine in tobacco may be a form of protection against the virus.
While this might be a correlative observation made early on in the pandemic that caused smokers to rejoice on social media, a subsequent French study citing the “low incidence of daily active tobacco smoking in patients with symptomatic COVID-19” also went viral online.
Could Nicotine Itself Protect Us From Coronavirus?
International coverage has lauded the preliminary French research study as evidence that “nicotine can prevent infection and help recovery” from the COVID-19 disease.
However, it’s not quite as clear-cut as that. The research was carried out at one Parisian hospital on just under 500 coronavirus patients. It showed that people admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 were less likely to be smokers than the general population.
The authors of the study propose that the activation of nicotine receptors in smokers could help to protect against coronavirus infection. They suggest that there is evidence that nicotine reduces the number of receptors that the coronavirus uses to gain entry into your body’s cells – although this is purely theoretical at present.
There are many reasons to take these results with caution. There’s not enough evidence yet to make a causative link between smoking and reduced likelihood of getting coronavirus.
There are also a number of potential confounding variables – unexpected causes behind the results that the researchers haven’t controlled for.
Additionally, the most severe cases of coronavirus patients aren’t included in this study, as they are being looked after in intensive care units in a separate hospital.
In fact, several studies so far have shown that smokers are more likely to experience severe illness with COVID-19 compared to non-smokers.
If you’re really convinced by the study’s findings, then use nicotine patches or gum instead – as the authors theorize that the benefits of smoking are thanks to nicotine, not tobacco.
Big Tobacco’s COVID-19 PR Spin
Adding more confusion to the mix are the predatory PR tactics of the tobacco industry seeking to capitalize on the pandemic. Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control issued a report detailing tobacco industry interference during the COVID-19 pandemic, indicating that a number of pro-tobacco scientific papers were, in fact, funded by the tobacco industry, including a pro-vaping coronavirus spin by Philip Morris.
The GCGGTC states that the best way to prevent COVID-19 infection is to refrain from smoking, vaping, and waterpipe smoking; they furthermore urge people to quit outright.
Evidence Linking Tobacco Smoking to Worse COVID-19 Outcomes
The medical community has largely been in consensus on health risks of smoking tobacco:
- Smoking tobacco makes you several times more likely to contract any kind of cancer, and especially likely to contract lung cancer.
- Smoking also damages your circulatory and cardiac system, making you more likely to get heart disease or suffer a stroke.
- The damage that smoking does to your lungs can make you more at risk from conditions such as pneumonia, or bronchitis.
This means that illnesses such as flu or coronavirus can become much more deadly for smokers than non-smokers.
The WHO’s Position on COVID-19 & Smoking
A review of studies by public health experts convened by WHO on 29 April 2020 found that smokers are more likely to develop severe disease with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers.
Here is the World Health Organization’s current advice on smoking related to coronavirus:
“[…] the available evidence suggests that smoking is associated with increased severity of disease and death in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. […] there is no evidence to quantify the risk to smokers of hospitalization with COVID-19 or of infection by SARS-CoV-2…”
So in other words, there’s still no solid reason to think that smoking can protect you from the coronavirus, and it will most likely make things worse.
However, due to the high level of distrust towards the WHO in the holistic health and plant medicine communities, there tends to be a confirmation bias towards alternative studies that contradict WHO findings.
This overarching bias would further contribute to the belief that shamanic tobacco use might be an effective treatment for COVID-19.
Shamanic Tobacco Use & COVID-19 Risk
While organic, wild-crafted shamanic snuff and tobacco juice might have medicinal and antimicrobial benefits, tobacco rituals that involve shared instruments like applicator blowpipes and spoons can be a coronavirus transmission vector.
- Shamans often use the same snuff applicator or spoon for multiple participants, which would be a highly effective way to spread infections across the entire group.
- If the shaman is contagious (and they may not even be aware if they are), they can effectively infect every single participant in a rapé or ayahuasca ceremony.
- If a participant who is infected with COVID-19 sneezes or projectile vomits, as can happen with rapé, tobacco juice and ayahuasca, they can potentially spread coronavirus-containing aerosols a substantial distance around the space, even if it is outdoors.
Some people have suggested that the natural antiviral and antimicrobial properties of the tobacco plant (and ayahuasca) could kill the coronavirus upon contact – but there is absolutely no evidence that this would happen.
Without more evidence-based research, this is simply an unsubstantiated, faith-based belief.
Remember that the tobacco plant has protective properties, but that doesn’t mean it can kill all viruses in humans, especially if those viruses might already be well-established deep inside a person’s respiratory system.
Read more about mitigating the risks of coronavirus in plant medicine ceremonies.
Can Tobacco Use Be Healing?
Yes, tobacco use can potentially be healthy and medicinal. Sacred Amazonian snuff is one of the oldest plant medicines in the world and the indigenous peoples have had a long history using it, without physical harm.
Insufflation is an efficient drug delivery mechanism, allowing for a more rapid absorption of medicines by bypassing the gastrointestinal system.
When snuff is organic, wild-crafted and lovingly made with medicinal plants (rather than filled with additives and chemicals like moist tobacco chews and Scandinavian snus) Amazonian rapé is likely to be one of the healthiest ways to consume tobacco with the lowest risk of cancer.
If you are self-administering tobacco medicine using personal paraphernalia that you do not share with others (or properly disinfect if you do), then your risk of disease transmission will be low.
Tobacco has always been a sacred plant teacher to the indigenous peoples. Its nicotine content also makes it habit forming.
As with many things in life, any potential health risks from tobacco can be minimized if it is used in moderation, especially when insufflated as a snuff or juice rather than smoked.
We’re seeing a lot of interest in people seeking plant medicines to help protect themselves from the coronavirus.
However, it’s important to be discerning around unsubstantiated claims and rampant disinformation being spread online during an escalating disease pandemic. COVID misinformation can be deadly.
At present, beyond hopeful preliminary studies, or research papers funded by Big Tobacco, there is currently no reliable scientific evidence that tobacco use can protect you from coronavirus.
As long as you are aware of this, and take proper precautions around your personal sacred tobacco use, you can continue to enjoy the benefits of medicinal tobacco, while reducing risk to yourself and others.
Charlton (2004). Medicinal Uses of Tobacco in History. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 97(6), p292-296.
Yan et al (2019). A Review on Bioactives of Tobacco Cembranoid Diterpenes. Biomolecules, 9(1):30.
Wang et al (2008). Identification of polyphenols in tobacco leaf and their antioxidant and antimicrobial activities. Food Chemistry, 107(4), p1399-1406.
Steppuhn et al (2006). Nicotine’s defensive function in nature. PLoS Biology, 2(8).
Moore et al (2019). Tobacco exposure inhibits SPLUNC1-dependent antimicrobial activity. Respir Res, 20(1):94.