France has limited the sale of nicotine substitutes to avoid stockpiling after research suggested the addictive substance could have the potential to protect people from contracting the coronavirus.
The government said that until 11 May, when the country's lockdown is planned to gradually begin lifting, pharmacies would only be able to sell a maximum of one month's worth of products treating nicotine dependence, such as patches, chewing gum or lozenges.
The sale of such products online was suspended entirely.
The move was to "firstly prevent the health risks from excessive consumption or misuse linked to media coverage of the possible protective effect of nicotine against COVID-19," the government said in a statement.
The study suggested smoking may prevent coronavirus. Source: ABACA
"Secondly it guarantees continuous and appropriate supply to people requiring medical support to stop smoking."
Researchers at a top Paris hospital released a study on Wednesday examining nearly 500 coronavirus patients, finding that only five per cent smoked - far less than the 35 per cent in France's general population.
The research echoed similar findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine in March that found 12.6 per cent of 1,000 Chinese cases were smokers, compared to 26 per cent of China's population.
The French researchers are awaiting approval to carry out further trials, including using nicotine patches on health workers at the Paris hospital to see if it protects them against contracting the virus.
The theory is that nicotine could adhere to cell receptors, thereby blocking the virus from entering cells and spreading in the body, said the study's co-author, neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux from France's Pasteur Institut.
“Our cross-sectional study strongly suggests that those who smoke every day are much less likely to develop a symptomatic or severe infection with Sars-CoV-2 compared with the general population,” the Pitié-Salpêtrière report authors wrote.
“The effect is significant. It divides the risk by five for ambulatory patients and by four for those admitted to hospital. We rarely see this in medicine,” it added.
French Health Minister Olivier Veran on Friday urged citizens not to rush out and buy nicotine products, telling France Inter radio that there are 70,000 deaths due to tobacco each year in France.
But he called the research "interesting" and said that products similar to nicotine could be developed that could help avoid its "addictive effects".
France is one of the European countries hardest hit by the coronavirus, with nearly 22,000 deaths and more than 158,000 reported infections.