Opinion: There's no better time to quit smoking, vaping

Venkat K. Rao

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis, resulting in devastating effects for our people and our economy. The cases and, sadly, the deaths in Michigan climb by the day, and we appear to be among the hardest-hit states in the country.

The best way to avoid contracting COVID-19 is through handwashing, social distancing and following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines during essential trips to the store. But there is one more critical way people can reduce their risk for harm from COVID-19: Quitting smoking and vaping. 

Among other health risks, smoking and vaping both weaken the lungs, which is much more dangerous now that COVID-19 is prevalent in Michigan. Though some proponents have tried to paint vaping as a safe alternative to smoking, both are linked to lung damage and cause health problems. The FDA even recently issued a warning that those with underlying health issues, like heart or lung problems, may have increased risk for serious complications from COVID-19. 

Among other health risks, smoking and vaping both weaken the lungs, which is much more dangerous now that COVID-19 is prevalent in Michigan, Rao writes.

How do I know this? Dealing with breathing problems is my specialty. I’m a doctor of pulmonology, meaning my medical training is specialized in addressing diseases and problems in the respiratory tract. I have been a doctor in Michigan for 28 years and have never seen a virus that attacks the lungs as COVID-19 does. This is definitely a scary time, but, to me, the additional risk that people are taking on by continuing to smoke or vape is even scarier. 

The coronavirus was originally expected to be most dangerous for the senior population. While that still remains true, as of April 13, Michigan data showed that more than 20% of the confirmed cases of the virus were people between 20 and 49 years old. Though it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact cause at this point in the pandemic, more and more doctors are hypothesizing that this spike is likely due to the high number of people who are damaging their lungs by vaping. This is a tragic situation, as the voluntary decision to smoke or vape is putting young people — who have their whole lives ahead of them — at much greater risk.  

This is an x-ray of one of the first patients in Utah treated for vaping-related respiratory illness by Dr. Dixie Harris, Intermountain Healthcare pulmonologist, in August 2019.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic we were facing a public health crisis because of vaping. The 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey estimated that 27.5% of high school students are vaping. That’s more than one out of every four in the country. In fact, e-cigarette usage among high school students has increased 135% in the last two years alone. These numbers are alarming under normal circumstances, but become downright scary when dealing with a virus that attacks the lungs. 

The good news? It’s not too late to change things. The CDC has said that within weeks of quitting smoking or vaping, the lungs can begin to recover from the effects of using these products. At a time when there is serious risk of contracting this dangerous respiratory virus, isn’t it a good time to rethink the unhealthy activity that increases the risk for harm if the virus is contracted? 

The bottom line is that smoking and vaping are not worth increasing your risk of harm from COVID-19. This is the perfect time to quit and there are resources available to help. The Michigan Tobacco Quitline is available online or by calling (800) QUIT-NOW. Take the first step today; your lungs will thank you.  

Venkat K. Rao, M.D., is a doctor of pulmonology practicing in Flint. He previously served on the Michigan State Medical Society Board and is a member of the Genesee County Medical Society board.