As cited last week, a recent study published online in the Chinese Medical Journal found that, of 78 patients with COVID-19, those with a history of smoking were 14 times as likely to develop pneumonia. Many public health experts go even further and say that smokers face a much higher risk than nonsmokers of developing severe complications and dying from COVID-19 infections.
The term “smokers” includes those who vape or smoke cannabis, as smoking in general can compromise lung function, putting those individuals at great risk to the ravages of COVID-19. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, “Smoking weakens a person’s ability to fight off respiratory infections and drives up their risk of developing the types of chronic lung conditions that underlie many of the most severe coronavirus cases.”
As outlined in an Associated Press report, in response to the surge in underage vaping, health advocacy groups successfully sued the Food and Drug Administration last year to compel the government to speed up its review of vaping products. This represented significant progress after years of delay in effectively regulating the multibillion-dollar vaping industry. A court order required the FDA to set May 12 as the application deadline.
Then comes along the COVID-19 pandemic, which serves to buy all electronic cigarette companies an additional four months to submit their products for government review. What have they been up to during that additional time, you might ask?
As revealed in a recent Los Angeles Times investigative report: “As the global pandemic strains the world’s inventory of medical supplies, the tobacco and vaping industries are taking advantage of a unique opportunity, offering freebie protective gear, doorstep deliveries and festive pandemic-themed discounts. Some players have donated ventilators and mounted charity campaigns.” It was also reported that vape manufacturers and retailers are donating bottles of hand sanitizer to police and fire departments across the country.
While anti-smoking advocates have called these actions hypocritical and dangerous, tobacco companies insist they are “simply doing their part to help during the crisis,” according to the Times report. Whether this is an act to protect self-interests or a response to humanitarian concerns is for you to decide. My objective is to make you aware of an important battle now being waged that could easily be missed.
Public health advocates continue to spread the message that vaping has been linked to a growth in tobacco use, particularly among teens, and that people with lungs damaged by smoking are at an elevated risk if they catch the virus. “Unexpectedly high numbers of younger people have become severely ill from the virus, and some experts suspect a link to vaping,” according to the Times report. Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, says, “The COVID-19 crisis should be a wake-up call that your age doesn’t matter if your lungs are compromised.”
At the same time, the American Vaping Association has been making a quite different point. According to the Times, in late March, they circulated an editorial that urged “state officials to lift bans of online e-cigarette sales, arguing that online sales promote safety because it keeps people from making trips outside their home. Continued access to e-cigarettes prevents people from relapsing back into smoking cigarettes.”
Other examples are given in the report on how the tobacco industry is using this fragile moment in time to enhance its public image through its charitable giving. Though not publicizing its action, Philip Morris International donated 50 ventilators to the government of Greece, a country that has one of the highest smoking rates in Europe.
Tobacco giant Altria announced a $1 million relief investment to help support vulnerable residents surrounding its headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, and “other regions where manufacturing takes place.”
“There may be a silver lining to e-cigarette sales during the extended quarantine,” the Times report says in conclusion. “It’s much harder for addicted teenagers to keep the habit a secret, Myers said. ‘Tens of thousands of parents are likely realizing for the first time: Their kids are definitely still vaping.'”
Which brings us back to the focus on this piece: the health of young people. We should not lose sight that, according to psychologists, teens are having a particularly hard time with social distancing. “Social distancing contradicts much of what being a teenager is all about,” writes Catherine Bagwell, a professor of psychology at Oxford College of Emory University, in an opinion piece in The Conversation. “Separating from others goes against basic human needs for companionship and connection that everyone feels, yet the challenge of social distancing may be especially difficult for teenagers,” she adds.
“Another important task of adolescence is developing emotional and behavioral autonomy — feeling, thinking and acting as a self-governing person. Demands from parents and other authorities to stay home and practice social distancing make many teens bristle. They want to make those decisions for themselves,” says Bagwell.
How to handle this defining teen characteristic? “Continue to talk with teens about the coronavirus and its consequences. Acknowledge the uncertainty everyone feels. Help them engage their developing critical thinking skills around news reports and graphs of data and other evidence about the beneficial effects of social distancing,” she says. The dangers of vaping should not be lost in this conversation, I would add.