Vaping and COVID-19: Young Adults at Risk

Vaping and COVID-19: Young Adults at Risk (Photo: martin-dm/Getty Images)

Tommy, a senior at the University of California-Riverside, has been vaping since his sophomore year to relieve stress from school and everyday life.

He prefers mango-peach flavored Ezzys, a brand of disposable e-cigarettes that sells a variety of flavors, from Orange Soda to Lychee Ice.

Tommy, who asked that only his first name be used, is one of many who continues to vape amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed nearly 200,000 U.S. lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite reports that vaping can increase one’s chances of contracting COVID-19, Tommy said he isn’t worried.

“I take care of myself pretty decently, besides the fact that I vape,” Tommy said. “I just try to keep myself healthy.”

While vaping is popular among teenagers and young adults, a recent study from researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found those who vape face a much higher risk of contracting COVID-19. The study, which surveyed 4,351 participants ages 13 to 24, revealed those who vape were five to seven times more likely to be infected than those who don’t use e-cigarettes. 

“Young people may believe their age protects them from contracting the virus or that they will not experience any symptoms of COVID-19, but the data show this isn’t true among those who vape,” Shivani Mathur Gaiha, the study’s lead author, said in a news release.

“This study tells us pretty clearly that youth who are using vapes or are dual-using (e-cigarettes and cigarettes) are at elevated risk, and it’s not just a small increase in risk; it’s a big one.”

Youth e-cigarette use is down among middle school and high school and students, but 3.6 million teenagers still use them, according to recent data released from the CDC.

The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, causes pneumonia in patients. In more severe cases, patients can develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a form of lung failure.

People who use vaping devices like Juul pods or e-cigarettes have heightened lung sensitivity and are more at risk for lung diseases and infections, according to health officials at Massachusetts General Hospital. More severe cases of the coronavirus were seen alongside pre-existing lung conditions, the CDC reports.

Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital, says vaping affects the lungs in ways that could lead to complications in the future.

When a person vapes, the vapor’s unwanted materials — which include toxic chemicals and some known carcinogens — are inhaled deep into the lungs, he said. This can cause inflammation, asthma and mood disorders in young adults. He added that vaping “has the potential to cause cancer down the road.”

Vaping can also suppress macrophage genes, which help the immune system fight off viral infections. Any damage to the lungs could lead to lung disease, which has been associated with an “increased risk of severity” in COVID-19 cases, according to Winickoff.

But young adults are still feeding their nicotine addictions amid the pandemic.

Christian, a recent graduate from Williams College, has been vaping off and on for two years. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, he picked up the habit to cope with his stress.

“I just didn’t see any major difference in how I was breathing or anything, so I had no real reason to think that I was any more at risk,” Christian said.

Tommy, the California student, and Christian have one thing in common: they started vaping with the Juul.

The Juul device is the top-selling e-cigarette brand in the U.S. Young people have been found to use Juul devices frequently, and Juul has faced backlash over its marketing, which seemed to appeal to young audiences.

The Stanford researchers hope their study sends a message to urge the Food and Drug Administration to tighten the regulations on how vaping products are sold to young people.

Starting next year, California will ban the sale of flavored cigarettes and vaping cartridges in retail stores. In July, New York banned flavored nicotine vapor products. Juul Labs suspended the sale of non-tobacco based flavors in their products to combat youth using its products.

Tommy said he doesn’t use a Juul anymore, but he does use a brand of disposable e-cigarettes. He said he doesn’t think he’ll continue vaping in the future — his goal is to quit by the end of 2020.

“I just feel like I’m getting over it,” he said. “I don’t see myself vaping when I get older and when I have a job.”

And quitting is possible. After going on a trip to Virginia with his friends, Christian realized he “didn’t have any kind of yearning for it,” he said. He hasn’t vaped since.

“It’s just not a good habit, no matter what,” Christian said. “So, if I can go without it and feel fine, why not do that?”

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