Anti-Vaping Zealots Find Opportunity in the Pandemic

    We have to seize this moment,” said Laurie Rubiner, executive vice president of the Bloomberg-funded Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

    She was speaking earlier this month, when the National Medical Association (NMA) held a webinar titled,COVID-19: Accelerating the urgency of anti-vaping initiatives.”

    Whyamid an unprecedented pandemic that has killed 60,000 Americans, stressed hospitals to the point of collapse and left thousands of frontline healthcare providers without personal protective equipment (PPE)would the NMA choose to hold that webinar? Vaping nicotine doesn’t kill, and hasn’t been identified as a risk factor in contracting the coronavirus (in fact, emerging evidence suggests the opposite).

    Why not host a webinar to accelerate initiatives to help people quit smoking, a known killer of almost 500,000 disproportionately poorer Americans every year? Or a webinar on the critically important issue of racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths? The NMA represents African-American physicians and seeks to be a “leading force for parity and justice in medicine and the elimination of disparities in health.”

    Rubiner’s rambling Zoom presentation on vaping for the NMA event was full of lies, like “youth who vape are potentially more vulnerable to symptoms of COVID-19.” But her call to seize the moment was part of a coherent plan.


    A Well-Worn Template

    The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK), the Truth Initiative, Parents Against Vaping and E-cigarettes (PAVE) and a host of other vape-hating organizations, together with their political and media allies, are using the well-worn strategy of taking advantage of societal crises to push through a longstanding agenda.

    Many are generously bankrolled by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the self-funded presidential candidate whose hatred of vaping doesn’t let facts get in the way. He implied on national TV last year, with CTFK President Matthew Myers sitting next to him, that vaping lowers IQ.

    As their recent events and talking points show, these groups view the crisis of COVID-19 as a unique opportunity to discredit tobacco harm reduction and to push for further restrictions and bans. But it’s not the first time the anti-vaping zealots have seized upon an outbreak of disease to advance the war on people who vape—we have a very recent example that illustrates the pattern.

    During the outbreak of lung disease in 2019, misnamed E-cigarette or Vaping Product-Use Associated Lung Injury (EVALI), these organizations created a panic that automatically blamed e-cigarettes. This allowed states to rush through anti-vaping laws and bans. Using executive powers, the governor of Michigan imposed a ban on flavored vapes and in Massachusetts a temporary, total ban on e-cigarettes was enforced. The media published a daily stream of e-cigarette hit pieces, attempting to link EVALI to nicotine vaping, that spread fear and confusion.

    So when COVID-19 hit, the anti-vaping lobby knew what to do.

    The CDC and FDA added to the mix of misinformation and lies of omission. They soon knew that illicit THC cartridges tainted with vitamin E acetate were the source of the vast majority of lung injuries and deaths. But they obfuscated and continued to falsely point to e-cigarettes as the culprit. During the crisis, the CDC actually advised adult vapers to switch to FDA-approved smoking cessation medications, despite their extremely low success rates. That recommendation was a set-up to relapse back to smoking. The two agencies misled the public into believing that e-cigarettes cause harm and kill while failing to warn users of the dangers of vaping tainted THC cartridges, which did kill 68 people and sickened thousands.

    So when COVID-19 hit, the anti-vaping lobby knew what to do. The Truth Initiative and PAVE quickly put out propaganda warning “about the potential risk associated with smoking or vaping and COVID-19.” This is one of the most powerful tactics anti-vaping activists deploy; link vaping to a life-threatening illness. It doesn’t matter if there is no evidence. A variety of officials at local, state and federal levels, including the FDA, followed suit.

    “People with underlying health issues, such as heart or lung problems, may have increased risk for serious complications from COVID-19,” an FDA spokesman told (you guessed it) Bloomberg News in late March. “This includes people who smoke and/or vape tobacco or nicotine-containing products. E-cigarettes can damage lung cells.”

    In response to this misinformation, a group of leading international scientists and tobacco harm reductionists sent a letter to the FDA on March 31 that stated, “It is important that the FDA does not assert or imply, in any circumstances, an equivalence in risk between smoking and vaping… If FDA is going to provide advice on smoking and vaping it must do this based on recognition of the pronounced difference in risk between smoking and vaping, the difficulty that many face in quitting nicotine use completely and the strong association of smoking with poverty and various forms of disadvantage.”

    It took the FDA until April 15 to admit that there is no evidence that vaping exacerbates the coronavirus.


    Anti-Vaping Propaganda and Victories

    In the interim, an April 1 letter from the House Oversight Committeeincluding Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi from Illinois, dubbed the “vaping industry’s biggest enemy in DCurged the FDA to “clear the market” of e-cigarettes because of their supposed coronavirus risk. In a bizarre twist of “logic,” Krishnamoorthi linked the dire lack of PPE in hospitals with the need to ban vaping. The truth is healthcare providers don’t have enough PPE as a result of supply chain snafus.

    On April 2, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), piled on. Discussing the intersection of the overdose crisis with COVID-19 in an article for the Annals of Internal Medicine, she casually inserted massive amounts of misinformation about vaping. “Persons whose lungs may be compromised from vaping nicotine or tetrahydrocannabinol (or even just flavorings) may also be at risk,” she wrote. “The highly publicized lung illnesses from vaping, including ‘popcorn lung’ and EVALI, alert us to the potential for lung injury from vaping…”

    The zealots’ first major victory came at 3 am on April 3, when the New York State Assembly rammed through a bill with no public comment.

    That’s speculation based upon no valid evidence (vaping and COVID), propagation of an outright myth that has been debunked (vaping and popcorn lung) and deliberate misidentification (vaping and EVALI). How can the head of NIDA and a world-renowned researcher get away with that? It’s shocking, but for anyone familiar with this field, not surprising.

    But the zealots’ first major victory came at 3 am on April 3, when the New York State Assembly, with Albany on lockdown, rammed through a bill with no public comment that bans the sale of flavored vaping products.

    Flavors are critical because the vast majority of smokers who switch use flavored liquids or cartridges. If vapers can no longer purchase them, untold numbers will return to smoking; it’s a public health disaster in the making.

    Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives,* a grassroots nonprofit representing people who use nicotine, commented on the devastating timing of the New York flavor ban: “In the midst of a global pandemic involving a respiratory illness that kills people who have underlying conditions such as COPD, asthma, heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and other illnesses attributed to smoking, the actions of the legislature and Governor Cuomo are shameful.”

    Temporary closures of vape shopswhich, as Filter has reported, may drive small operators out of business permanently—have been another opportunity for the enemies of vaping. Vape shops have lobbied state officials to be designated essential businesses, just like liquor stores and medical marijuana dispensaries. But in many states, they have not been deemed essential and are closed.

    ”Restrictions on sales of vapor products have left limited options available at convenience stores, grocery stores and other “essential businesses;” however, combustible cigarettes are still easily purchased at the same, widespread locations,” Chelsea Boyd, a fellow in harm reduction policy at the R Street Institute**, told Filter. “Restriction of online sales of vapor products has also made it more difficult to purchase these products from home, particularly in some states. As long as vape shops take precautions to minimize risk of COVID-19 exposure for their employees and customers, they provide an essential service to many e-cigarette users, who may switch back to smoking combustible cigarettes if they are unable to access less harmful products.”

    By whipping up panic, how many more victories will Myers and his allies achieve before the crisis is over?

    Matthew Myers disagrees. In a statement full of lies and hyperbole, he declared: “It’s absurd and irresponsible for vape shops to claim they are essential businesses. How in the world can vape shops make these claims when over 5 million kids use e-cigarettes and there is mounting concern among public health experts that smoking and vaping can worsen the effects of COVID-19? Vape shops should not be allowed to exploit a lung health crisis to push products that harm your lungs…and they have not been proven to help smokers quit.”

    Apparently it’s just fine for Myers to exploit a lung health crisis to ban vaping—an innovation at least 95 percent safer than smoking, almost twice as effective for quitting cigarettes as NRT, and with the potential, therefore, to save more lives than any other harm reduction intervention ever invented. By whipping up panic, how many more victories will Myers and his allies achieve before the coronavirus crisis is over?

    PAVE, another Bloomberg-funded organization, is also using the tried-and-tested template of linking vaping to a serious health problem. A FAQ page on its website states: “COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that attacks the lungs. Vaping damages the immune system, including the lungs and white blood cells. People with compromised immune systems due to vaping are at an increased risk of contracting the virus, and they are more likely to suffer from more severe symptoms.”

    There is no science to back up any of these claims! But if Nora Volkow and the FDA can get away with it, what does PAVE have to fear?

    Dr. Caitlin Notley, a vaping expert from the University of East Anglia in England, provides a much needed corrective on vaping and COVID-19: “There is no evidence that vaping increases the risk of infection or progression to severe conditions of COVID-19. However, vapers with a long previous smoking history could exhibit conditions seen in vulnerable patients. However, this would not be an effect of vaping but of previous smoking. Since completely switching from smoking to vaping improves cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, smokers who switch to vaping might be expected to have a better prognosis if infected by COVID-19.”

    The emerging large-scale evidence that nicotine users—even smokers—are being hospitalized less often than other people for the coronavirus illustrates the foolishness of jumping to conclusions to support a pre-existing agenda. No doubt tobacco control organizations are aghast at the idea that nicotine might have a protective effect against the coronavirus. That would undermine their crusade to demonize nicotine as a dangerous drug with no medicinal benefits.

    We hear over and over again that when it comes to the pandemic, “We are all in it together.” We are not all in it togethernot by class or race, nor when it comes to the health, safety and rights of people who vape. A cabal of anti-vaping fanatics is using the tragic deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic to advance an agenda that, sickeningly, will result in the continued deaths of hundreds of thousands of smokers. It is a moral horror.


    Photograph by Helen Redmond

    * Correction, May 1: An earlier version of this article was followed by a disclosure stating that Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives (like Filter‘s operator, The Influence Foundation) had received a grant from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW). In fact, Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives has not received a grant from FSFW.

    ** The R Street Institute has provided restricted grants to The Influence Foundation to support reporting about harm reduction and women, harm reduction education and alcohol harm reduction. 

    • Helen is the senior editor of Filter. She has written about nicotine, mental health and drug policy for publications including Al Jazeera, AlterNet, Harper’s and The Influence. As an LCSW, she works with drug users in medical and community mental health settings. An expert on tobacco harm reduction, she provides training and consultation on mental health, nicotine use and THR, and in 2016 organized the first Tobacco Harm Reduction Conference in the US. Helen is also a documentary filmmaker.

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