Smokers with COVID-19, the pneumonia-like illness caused by the coronavirus, are at a significantly higher risk of developing severe symptoms that progress to ICU support, mechanical ventilation, or death, according to a comprehensive study published in the journal Tobacco Induced Diseases.
A meta-analysis of five different studies, the new study found that tobacco smokers were 1.4 times more likely to have severe COVID-19 symptoms and about 2.4 times more likely to develop severe symptoms, hospitalization, or die from the illness than non-smokers.
Coronavirus targets the lungs and heart
“There has never been a better time to quit smoking or vaping,” said Dr. Susan Walley, a pediatrician at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) and chair of the section of tobacco control for the American Academy of Pediatrics, in response to the study’s findings.
In a webinar aired by CBS 42 Birmingham, Dr. Walley said that lung damage is inherent to anyone who smokes, and that damage compromises the body’s ability to fight the coronavirus, which often leads to the development of severe and potentially fatal pneumonia.
This scenario is especially troubling for Alabama and other states that consistently rank in the top 10 for smoking as well as chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity. Smoking and chronic disease diminish the body’s immune system, making it easier for people to become infected and more difficult to recover.
Is vaping as bad as smoking?
While data about the risks of vaping for COVID-19 patients isn’t as developed as it is for smoking, Dr. Walley said that researchers are concerned that vaping also puts people at a higher risk of progressing to severe COVID-19 symptoms.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned that vaping, like smoking and chronic disease, makes people more susceptible to becoming severely ill when infected with the coronavirus. Health professionals know that vaping causes inflammation and weakens lung tissue, which open the lungs to infection.
Some researchers warn that vaping could actually be worse for the lungs and heart than smoking. One study found that people who use JUUL and other vape products were worse off than those who smoked conventional cigarettes in terms of coronary microvascular function.
“What makes e-cigarettes so harmful to the heart and lungs is not just nicotine,” the study’s author said in a press release. “It’s the completely unknown bucket of manufactured products used to form vapors that is likely causing the most harm. This is what we believe is underlying the current public health problem.”
Daniel Duprez, MD, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, told MedPage Today that there is “very clear” evidence that vaping has a “detrimental effect” on the body that is “even worse than classical cigarettes.”
Youth and COVID-19
Dr. Wally of UAB emphasized that the popularity of vaping among young people may be putting them at a higher risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms than non-vapers. Government data shows that 27% of high school students currently vape.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams and other public health experts have speculated that vaping may be at least partly to blame for the higher percentages of young people diagnosed with COVID-19 in the U.S. than in other countries.
Children who don’t smoke or vape may also be at risk if they are exposed to second-hand smoke around the house. Doctors already know that exposure to second-hand smoke puts children at risk of ear infection, asthma, SIDS, pneumonia, and other illnesses.
Dr. Wally noted that many parents are working from home because of the coronavirus lockdowns. Parents who vape in the house or around their children could be putting them at a higher risk for COVID-19 and other illnesses.
Aerosol from vaping contains ultrafine particles of toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and volatile organic compounds that children can inhale deep into their lungs.
Beasley Allen lawyers Joseph VanZandt and Sydney Everett, together with Mass Torts Section Head Andy Birchfield, are currently representing several individuals who are suing the top U.S. vape maker JUUL for the negative impact its products have had on their lives. They also have filed lawsuits on behalf of school districts nationwide, which seek to protect students and recover resources spent fighting the vaping epidemic.