Gabi Butler, the same cheerleader star and social media celebrity, urged his 1.2 million Instagram followers to quit smoking in a video ad for the Texas Department of State Health Services’ #VapesDown campaign which she warns against the toxic ingredients of many vapes. “With everything that’s going on with the coronavirus, you want your lungs to be beautiful and healthy,” she says in the video.
Meredith Berkman and Dorian Fuhrman, who lead the advocacy group Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes (PAVe), say they receive a lot of messages from parents even more concerned about their children’s vaping habits now during the pandemic. “Trying to arrest my 14 year old does not want to,” wrote a parent on the group’s Facebook page. “She says she needs it to help her overcome her stress. It kills me. Another parent sent a message to the group asking for strategies to help her husband and teenager quit smoking. She wrote that Covid-19 motivates her to “get them out of this shit.”
Not only are parents concerned about the potential health risks, but as more families take shelter together, more parents are discovering the vaping habits of their teens. Berkman says vAPe advocates have heard anecdotal stories from parents discovering that their children are more dependent on flavored electronic cigarettes than they thought. “Now that everyone is at home, you can no longer hide this behavior,” adds Fuhrman.
Carol Green, President-elect of the California State Parent Teacher Association, says she has heard a different set of concerns from parents who still have essential jobs in grocery stores, hospitals and elsewhere. For those families whose parents are working and who have no school, there is no adult supervision for their children. “These parents are really worried about what their children do at home,” she says.
This is not the first – or even the biggest – panic about vaping and lung health. Fears over electronic cigarettes and vaping peaked in the summer and fall of 2019 when a series of related lung diseases, now known as EVALI (lung damage associated with cigarette use or vaping products), spread across the country, killing 68 people and hospitalizing more than 2,000 people. Many of these patients were previously healthy adolescents who arrived in emergency rooms with symptoms similar to Covid-19, including shortness of breath, fatigue, and chest pain. Many ended up on respirators while doctors struggled to determine treatment.
Although the Centers for Disease Control ultimately linked EVALI to vitamin E acetate, an ingredient found in some THC vapors, the diseases triggered a series of state and city bans on nicotine electronic cigarettes and flavored vapors, and have prompted the federal government to increase age purchases of tobacco products from 18 to 21 years of age.
There is no published research yet that specifically addresses the health risk of Covid-19 vapers, but there is evidence showing additional risks for tobacco smokers. Data from the Chinese Centers for Disease Control shows that smoking-related illnesses like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease have increased the mortality rate of Covid-19 patients. Another study, published in the European respiratory journal, have found that smokers have higher levels of the ACE2 enzyme that the new coronavirus uses to enter lung cells. Having more of these entry points could make smokers more susceptible to infections.
In addition, several previous studies suggest that vaping weakens the immune response of the lungs and makes the body more vulnerable to infections in general. For this reason, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse are warning Americans that vaping can cause underlying health conditions that will make symptoms of the coronavirus worse.
In September, researchers at Baylor University published a study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation showing that, in mice, electronic cigarettes disrupt a large lipid layer in the lungs that traps pathogens, leaving mice susceptible when exposed to a normally harmless amount of flu virus. Another study by researchers at the University of North Carolina, published in July 2016 in the American Journal of Physiology, revealed that the vapor from the electronic cigarette weakens the eyelashes, tiny hair-like projections that help clear mucus and pathogens from the lungs. A separate UNC study published last May in Chemical research in toxicology have discovered that the chemicals that give electronic cigarettes the flavor of cinnamon and vanilla affect neutrophils and macrophages, tiny cells that help swallow pathogens before causing infection.