The short answer is yes — the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that not only can smoking and vaping increase the risk of contracting COVID-19, they may also make COVID-19 symptoms more severe. This is because vaping can lead to EVALI (E-cigarette or Vaping Associated Lung Injury). EVALI causes a host of problems, which include lung inflammation and damage to air sacs. This creates the perfect conditions for COVID-19 to cause serious symptoms and even turn deadly.
The relationship between vaping and COVID-19 is complex. Contrary to popular belief, the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself isn’t to blame for the worst of respiratory symptoms associated with the disease. Instead, inflammatory cells called cytokines, which are responsible for the immune system’s response, can have a powerful overreaction to the virus and attack lung tissue, along with other tissues throughout the body. Vaping can weaken lung tissues, making them especially vulnerable to this type of damage.
Vaping is extra dangerous during a pandemic, and that danger is especially pronounced among teenagers. Although COVID-19 is generally the most dangerous for older people, 20% of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 are between 20 and 44. Experts believe this may be tied to this group’s interest in vaping — a recent survey showed that in the U.S., around 27% of high schoolers and 10% of middle schoolers use e-cigarettes. Lung expert Dr. Alicia Casey said in an interview with Boston’s Children Hospital, “We’re concerned that if teens have underlying lung damage from vaping, and get COVID-19 on top of that, they could have worse outcomes.”
And COVID-19 is far from the only concern. Vaping makes it more likely that teens will develop a nicotine addiction, one that will be more difficult to shake later in life. Teen addiction to e-cigarettes is especially harmful, as research has shown that vaping can interfere with the adolescent brain’s processes. Many vaping products appeal to younger people more than cigarettes — they come in an array of fruity and minty flavors, which are ideal for teens whose taste buds haven’t completely graduated from vending machine candy. Their cartridges resemble USB sticks, making them easy to hide among the ordinary contents of a school backpack.
What’s more, major e-cigarette seller Juul has made a documented effort to target underage customers. Juul paid schools to present marketing material to high school students, and also paid online influencers with mostly underage followers to serve as spokespeople.
School districts across the US have joined together in a lawsuit against Juul. These lawsuits state that Juul’s marketing presented their e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to smoking tobacco, without providing complete information about the risks associated with vaping. In fact, many e-cigarette users are not aware of their nicotine content.
There is also a mass tort lawsuit against Juul — plaintiffs are suing because of the link between e-cigarette use and EVALI. According to the CDC, there is reason to believe that vaping has caused as many as 2,807 lung injuries and 68 deaths.
Researchers are still working to understand exactly how the COVID-19 virus works, and how the public can protect against infection. In the absence of complete information, there is plenty of opportunity for misinformation to take hold. Recently, a rumor began circulating about how smoking and vaping may make smokers less likely to contract coronavirus, but those rumours are unfounded. One study at a hospital in France indicated that nicotine patches may help stop the infection from spreading, but these claims need further research before science can establish a valid link. This study also only focused on nicotine patches, and did not address the effects of smoking and vaping. There is no information to suggest that smoking and vaping could reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19.
Another unfortunate vein of misinformation: There is a widely circulated rumor that vaping marijuana is less harmful than vaping marijuana, but researchers believe the opposite. Marijuana vape pods contain vitamin E acetate, which scientists believe could be one of the major factors in cases of EVALI. Bottom line: There is no safe way to vape. Dr. Casey states, “The ingredients that have been allowed in vape products are generally recognized as safe for the skin, or safe in food, but none of these things have had toxicology testing in the lungs. Even the flavorings, when heated, become toxic chemicals that don’t belong in the lungs, including formaldehyde.”
Now, in quarantine, many smokers are finding it especially hard to quit. With so many usual distractions unavailable due to quarantine and stay-at-home orders, vapers may find the bursts of nicotine from an e-cigarette especially comforting. But it’s never been more crucial to focus on scientifically-backed methods for quitting, such as nicotine patches. An exhale of vapor might transmit droplets of saliva through the air, and although it’s not scientifically certain that vape clouds can contain COVID-19, researchers urge that everyone err on the side of caution. It’s also important to not share e-cigarettes, in order to avoid infected saliva.
COVID-19 has changed the way we live, and will hopefully also change how we view the dangers of vaping. At a time when health policy makers are working around the clock to develop policies to prevent new cases of coronavirus, we owe it to our communities to stay as healthy as possible. Besides remaining physically distant from other people, we should also put as much distance as possible between ourselves and e-cigarettes.
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