Anti-Vaping Forces Again Leverage COVID to Seek Prohibition

August 17, 2020

California’s tobacco research mob, obsessed with youth vaping and hell-bent on enacting total vaping bans, has a devious, three-step strategy. Hunt for a link between vaping and a disease, publish studies based on junk science to “prove” the association, then create a panic that ends in more restrictions or outright prohibition.

This is precisely what happened with 2019’s misnamed “E-cigarette or Vaping Product-Use Associated Lung Injury” (EVALI) outbreak, as Filter reported. No link was ever found between vaping nicotine and lung injuries, but the panic unleashed by the Centers for Disease Control and the Bloomberg-funded groups Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Parents Against Vaping and E-cigarettes convinced millions of the opposite.

And so it is with COVID-19. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco just published a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health: “Association Between Youth Smoking, Electronic Cigarette Use, and Coronavirus Disease 2019.”

Political capital was sought instantly.

According to the study, “The findings from a national sample of adolescents and young adults show that electronic cigarette use and dual use of electronic cigarettes and cigarettes are significant underlying risk factors for coronavirus disease… Being diagnosed with Covid-19 was five times more likely among young people who have used e-cigarettes ever.”

Political capital was sought instantly. On August 11, the day of the study’s release, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL)—described by Time magazine as “the vaping industry’s biggest enemy in DC”wrote a letter on behalf of a House subcommittee to FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn. It called for the agency to “clear the market of all e-cigarettes, temporarily, for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.”

Rep. Krishnamoorthi stated, “The youth vaping epidemic is colliding with the pandemic to create a very dangerous situation…we have a real public health emergency on our hands.” The loaded words in his statement are classic drug-panic language.

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, is a leading anti-vaping activist and the creator of the Tobacco Prevention ToolKit for teenswhich could take first prize for lies of omission about vaping. Her own words fueled new fear: “Teens and young adults need to know that if you use e-cigarettes, you are likely at immediate risk of COVID-19 because you are damaging your lungs.”

Really, immediate risk? There is no evidence to back up that assertion, but what was immediate was the call for a federal ban on e-cigarettes. The media, which has never met a drug panic it didn’t like—Get those clicks!began to blast out frightening headlines like, “Vaping linked to higher risk of COVID-19 in teens and young adults, study finds. Young people who vaped were five to seven times more likely to be diagnosed.”

But are the study findings valid or cause for major concern? For starters, it’s not actually a study. The researchers created an online survey based on self-reporting. Open internet questionnaires are susceptible to all sorts of biases and it’s not possible to verify any of the respondents’ answers. Another problem with the survey is that it doesn’t qualify, “have used e-cigarettes ever.” Even a single puff on a single occasion?

“This study smells fishier than month-old cod.”

Critiques of the research quickly emerged. Naturally, these were not afforded the political or media platform enjoyed by the study itself. A number of criticisms were made by Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos, a leading vaping researcher in Greece, who tweeted:

“This study smells fishier than month-old cod,” Michelle Minton, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told Filter. “All it demonstrates is that if you give one group of people more COVID tests, that group will end up with more confirmed cases. Since the e-cigarette users in the survey reported three times more testing, it’s unsurprising the study found more confirmed COVID-19 cases among e-cigarette users. Had the authors calculated risk based on testing rates, it would have shown no difference in COVID-19 cases between e-cigarette users and non-users. But, that’s not how the authors chose to report their results.”

There is another potential explanation for why teen vapers might test positive for the coronavirus that the researchers didn’t take into consideration: Youth who take risks in one area are likely to be the same people who take risks in other areas.

“It is just as likely that the respondents that used e-cigarettes were more likely to take risks in life, including COVID-specific risks such as not wearing masks or washing hands as often or attending large social gatherings without social distancing,” said Dr. Annie Kleykamp, a research associate professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

“It could be that these and other risk-taking behaviors made respondents more likely to have a positive test result, not their use of e-cigarettes,” she told Filter.

It is reckless and irresponsible to call for the prohibition of vaping products that millions depend on not to smoke.

The wider harm reduction community also pushed back against the illogic of prohibition in this context:

It is reckless and irresponsible to call for the prohibition of vaping products that millions depend on not to smoke. A ban would undoubtedly lead many teens and adults back to combustible cigarettes.

But tragically, that is already happening. David Sweanor, a lawyer, University of Ottawa adjunct professor and tobacco policy analyst, reports that vapers are switching back to traditional cigarettes as a result of the tsunami of vaping scare stories in the media, junk science and the enforcement of flavor bans. Is that really what tobacco control zealots like Halpern-Felsher want?

“Everything about this study indicates either incompetence or willful manipulation,” Minton concluded. “That this was published at all is embarrassing for science, but the fact that some are using this single study and its implausible findings as the sole basis for policy recommendations is downright shameful.”


Photo by Vaporesso on Unsplash

Helen Redmond

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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