Doctors worry about the terrifying possibility that vaping makes COVID-19 worse

Before the coronavirus outbreak, public health officials began to target teen vaping after an outbreak of deadly lung illnesses was linked to e-cigarettes, prompting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban flavored vaping products across the country. Now, many of those same officials fear that vaping-related lung damage could cause the coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19, to present worse symptoms.

The question of whether vaping could worsen the effects of COVID-19 came up in a press conference with Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday morning, when she announced the state would issue “stay at home” orders for residents starting at midnight. She also said that several physicians she had spoken with mentioned that teens who had been vaping were more susceptible to coronavirus, and possibly could have more severe symptoms if they contracted it.

Evidence stacking up

Whitmer did not respond to a request for comment, but the research on this possible link is starting to stack up. The National Institute on Drug Abuse published a reminder on March 12 that the virus could hit those with substance abuse disorders “particularly hard.” In San Francisco, doctors are already on alert over whether the rates of vaping are connected to the rates of COVID-19 in young people.

“We’re concerned about this,” said Meredith Berkman, the co-founder of Parents Against Vaping/E-cigarettes. “No one has definitive evidence, but there [was] enough out there about why vaping is harmful to developing lungs before all this started that raises the alarm.”

Man Smoking Electronic Cigarette
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“Parents are now home with their kids, and we are hearing increasing stories across the country that they [the parents] are discovering that their kids are using flavored e-cigarettes, and they’re dependent on them,” she told Digital Trends. “There’s a real fear and need to help them quit. As parents, we were concerned before, and never more so than now.”

Dr. Stanton Glantz, the director of the Center for Tobacco Research Control and Education, is one researcher who is 100% sure of the relationship. “Yes, there is,” said Dr. Glantz, definitively, to Digital Trends, when asked whether there could be a link between vaping and severe COVID-19 symptoms. In a post he published at the beginning of March, before the coronavirus definitively took hold in the U.S., Glantz wrote: “Reporting of respiratory symptoms by e-cigarette users suggests increased susceptibility to and/or delayed recovery from respiratory infections.”

“It makes perfect sense,” said Dr. Cedric “Jamie” Rutland, a pulmonary care specialist in southern California, of the possible connection between vaping and severe COVID-19 symptoms. The parts of the lungs that vaping gases affect are the same parts that the virus targets, Rutland said. “If people already have lung injuries that involve the same sites that SARS-CoV-2 affects, of course it’s going to make it worse,” he told Digital Trends.

Still more work to be done

But that doesn’t mean it’s scientifically proven yet, and most doctors are hesitant to commit definitively one way or the other. Juul, the largest producer of flavored e-cigarettes, did not respond to a request for comment. But this lack of certainty on the part of a lotof medical experts is what pro-vaping associations are seizing on. Greg Conley, the president of the American Vaping Association, accused Whitmer of “spreading lies” in her statement.

“What she said is baseless,” Conley asserted to Digital Trends. “She wouldn’t be able to cite a single study involving real live humans if she was asked to do so.”

This is not an inaccurate statement. There has been one tentative study out of China, which has not yet been peer-reviewed as of this writing, that shows a possible link between smoking (not vaping) and severe COVID-19 symptoms. But so far, that’s it. “There are no studies,” said Rutland. “None in which it’s suggested using a vape will increase susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2.”

“There are still questions about whether vaping/smoking increases likelihood of getting COVID-19 or of having serious lung illness if you get it, or both (likely both), but data are still lacking,” said Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, in an email to Digital Trends.

“This is the problem with evidence-based medicine in general,” said Rutland. “It just takes too long. You might not know of the damage until years later.”

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