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Tobacco, vaping industries seize opportunities in coronavirus with freebies, donations


Running low on surgical masks during the pandemic? You can get two for free by ordering a Moti Piin, a battery-powered vaping pen, from the company’s online shop.

Or buy sleek cartridges from Smok, another e-cigarette brand, and earn chances to win disposable gloves and up to 10,000 masks.

“COVID19 RELIEF EFFORT” blasts the ad of another online shop offering two-for-one e-liquid vials. Buyers at another shop get 19% off nicotine e-juices if they enter the code COVID-19.

As the global pandemic strains the world’s inventory of medical supplies, the tobacco and vaping industries are taking advantage of a unique opportunity, offering freebie protective gear, doorstep deliveries and festive pandemic-themed discounts. Some players have donated ventilators and mounted charity campaigns.

The tobacco companies insist they are simply doing their part to help during the crisis. But the coronavirus-related marketing has been criticized by anti-smoking advocates who call it hypocritical and potentially dangerous. They note that people with lungs damaged by smoking are at an elevated risk if they catch the virus, and that vaping has been linked to a growth in tobacco use, particularly among teens.

“It’s as if they don’t realize they’re in the business of destroying lungs,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “It literally takes your breath away. It makes the word ‘hypocrisy’ feel feeble.”

Researchers have long known the dangers of tobacco products, which kill more than 8 million people each year, according to the World Health Organization. Smoking weakens a person’s ability to fight off respiratory infections and drives up their risk of developing the types of chronic lung conditions that underlie many of the most severe coronavirus cases.

Health officials are adding the pandemic to their long list of reasons that people should quit. E-cigarettes can be efficient carriers of the virus, they note. They are often passed around and shared; smokers frequently touch their face and mouth. The smoke and vapor that waft through the air could spread infectious particles to people and surfaces nearby, say scientists.

But the American Vaping Assn. circulated an editorial in late March that urged state officials to lift bans of online e-cigarette sales, arguing that online sales promote safety because it keeps people from making trips outside their home. Continued access to e-cigarettes prevents people from relapsing back into smoking cigarettes, they added.

In one doorstep delivery promotion, a woman beams as she opens her vaping package, her fists raised in the air. In another, hand-in-hand models ask customers to help “build a community with a shared future for humanity.”

“Hurry and save today,” an Instagram ad said, with the hashtags #corona, #quarantine, #vapenation.

Research published in American and Chinese journals already suggests that tobacco users often fare worse with coronavirus infections. The effects of vaping on a case of COVID-19 are less conclusive, but scientists say a surge of lung infections tied to the habit last summer gives them reason for worry. “Because it attacks the lungs, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could be an especially serious threat to those who smoke tobacco or marijuana or who vape,” the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, warned in a statement last month.

The tobacco industry has used the moment to enhance its public image, especially with charitable giving. The world’s biggest tobacco company, Philip Morris International, donated 50 ventilators to the government of Greece, which has one of the highest smoking rates in Europe. The country has seen 2,100 cases of COVID-19, and at least 100 people have died.

The company, which holds 40% of the Greek tobacco market, did not appear to publicize its donation and did not respond to an inquiry from The Times.

Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia has asked tobacco companies to take on a similar role and supply respirator masks in the United States.

Altria, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, announced a $1-million relief investment to help support vulnerable residents surrounding its headquarters in Richmond, Va., and other regions where manufacturing takes place. Caring for each other and doing what’s right is core to our company,” Jennifer Hunter, the company’s senior vice president for corporate citizenship, said in a statement.

Altria said in a statement that its companies were “working to protect their employees, consumers and communities from the virus.”

Meanwhile, vape manufacturers and retailers are donating bottles of hand sanitizer to local police and fire departments across the country, according to the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association.

Individual vaping companies did not respond to inquiries from The Times.

In Los Angeles, smoke shops have been among the businesses most resistant to orders that they close. Los Angeles prosecutors have filed criminal charges against two smoke supply establishments, accusing them of refusing to comply with the city’s strict Safer at Home order intended to slow the spread of the virus.

On the store shelves, N95 respirators and hand sanitizer tubes are stacked beside glass bongs and e-liquids. “TIMES ARE TUFF,” one shop’s signage read. “WE GOT YOU.”

“We had a smoke shop that just refused to close,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “And even when police officers were there, they said, ‘Forget you’ — probably not in as nice words — ‘we’re not going to do it.’” He said the city was going to move to shut off the shop’s power.

Unexpectedly high numbers of younger people have become severely ill from the virus, and some experts suspect a link to vaping. “The COVID-19 crisis should be a wake-up call that your age doesn’t matter if your lungs are compromised,” Myers said.

Most of the companies’ websites still include legally required disclaimers about age restrictions. But the flavors range from Oatmeal Cookies and Yogurt Drink to Blueberry Parfait and Watermelon Rush, a colorful cartridge displayed in its promotion next to a bright glass of juice. The Food and Drug Administration attempted to ban such flavors years before the trend ballooned among teenagers, only to have the plan rejected by top White House officials, a Times investigation found last year.

There may be a silver lining to e-cigarette sales during the extended quarantine. It’s much harder for addicted teenagers to keep the habit a secret, Myers said.

“Tens of thousands of parents are likely realizing for the first time: Their kids are definitely still vaping.”


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Coronavirus and smoking

Dr. Rob Crane, clinical professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the Ohio State University and president of the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, explains why smokers and vapers are at greater risk for developing serious health problems as a result of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.



One more reason to quit smoking

LIMA — Smokers have a harder time fighting off respiratory infections and are at higher risk for developing chronic lung disease — two factors associated with severe cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — which is why some doctors are encouraging smokers to quit now to improve lung function before they get sick.

Researchers are still trying to determine the extent to which smoking itself can be attributed to worse outcomes from COVID-19, after preliminary studies in the U.S. and China found a possible link between the two.

“We know they have chronic inflammation of the lower lung,” said Dr. Rob Crane, a clinical physician with The Ohio State University Department of Family Medicine. “The air sacs tend to be more irritated. The basement membrane, that bottom lining of the lung, tends to get more broken up. You have cilia cells that don’t function in their reactions as well. And most acutely, the moment you inhale nicotine, it paralyzes the little hair cells, the cilia, that are the sweepers of the lung cleanup system.”

Oxygen diminishes when the lungs are congested with junk and fluid.

“That’s what kills people,” Crane said. “That’s why you find doctors trying to reposition people; put them on their stomach or sitting up or turned on their side so they can get that fluid drained different places and allow some parts of the lung to continue to ventilate.”

Crane, who is involved in tobacco cessation efforts and is the founder of the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, is one of the doctors using the coronavirus pandemic to encourage smokers to quit.

“There could hardly be a better motivator now than the risk of a horrendous death,” he said. “There are deaths and then there are deaths. But this death, where you asphyxiate, where you drown in your own secretions and then you go onto a ventilator and you probably don’t get off — you can’t say goodbye to your loved ones; you die alone — that’s right up there with really bad deaths.”

There were about 34.2 million active smokers in the U.S. in 2018, which accounts for about 14% of the adult population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But smoking is more common in Ohio, with about 21% of adults considered active smokers in 2017.

Crane said lung inflammation decreases just days after a person quits smoking. While the lung is not healed entirely, Crane explained those improvements help decrease the chances for chronic illness like heart disease.

Whether those changes are enough to improve a person’s chances of survival from COVID-19 are less clear.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, wrote earlier this month that COVID-19 “could be an especially serious threat to those who smoke tobacco or marijuana or who vape” because the disease attacks the lungs. Likewise, she warned people with opioid and methamphetamine use disorders may also be at higher risk.

But even if active smoking is not directly related to COVID-19 complications, Crane said there are other benefits to quitting, like decreased risk of chronic disease. He said the most effective methods include smoking cessation medications and nicotine substitutes.

Mackenzi Klemann is a reporter with The Lima News.

Big Tobacco, Big Hypocrisy

As if it weren’t appalling enough when the Wall Street Journal reported on April 4 that both British American Tobacco PLC and Philip Morris International Inc. are in the process of developing a potential vaccine for COVID-19, the LA Times published on April 17, 2020 an expose’ of how the tobacco and vaping industry is exploiting the pandemic to push its deadly and addictive products.

So, which is it, Big Tobacco: Do you want to save our lungs or destroy them? Do you care enough about our lungs to stop making and selling your deadly products, the use of which is attributed to 500,000 deaths per year in the U.S.

Apparently not…

The L.A. Times writes:

‘As the global pandemic strains the world’s inventory of medical supplies, the tobacco and vaping industries are taking advantage of a unique opportunity, offering freebie protective gear, doorstep deliveries, and festive pandemic-themed discounts. Some players have donated ventilators and mounted charity campaigns.

The tobacco companies insist they are simply doing their part to help during the crisis. But the coronavirus-related marketing has been criticized by anti-smoking advocates who call it hypocritical and potentially dangerous. They note that people with lungs damaged by smoking are at an elevated risk if they catch the virus, and that vaping has been linked to a growth in tobacco use, particularly among teens.’

While COVID-19 is a serious threat, so too is tobacco. Not only is smoking a likely risk factor for COVID-19, it is also associated with countless other diseases, including cancers, heart disease and COPD, not to mention addiction.

Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death. Tobacco kills almost 500,000 Americans every year, more than all deaths from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and murders combined.  If Big Tobacco really cared about your health, then they’d cease production of this harmful product.

If Big Tobacco cared about your lungs it wouldn’t be addicting a new generation through predatory marketing, innovative flavors, and nicotine products.

In 2019, over 35% of high school seniors reported tobacco product use in the last 30 days. This skyrocketing in youth use came at a time when youth combustible use was at an all-time low. Big Tobacco recognized this problem in their consumer base and engaged in deliberate campaigns to hook the next generation. They were successful: millions of middle schoolers and high schoolers who would never have smoked cigarettes are now using e-cigarettes regularly, many of them seriously addicted, and the trend shows no sign of abating.

In an infamous memo from a Lorillard Tobacco Company executive to the former Lorillard President regarding the Newport cigarette brand, the executive wrote, “the base of our business is the high-school student.” Tobacco companies are aware that if they do not engage new users by their early twenties, they most likely never will. With this knowledge and in response to a decline in combustible cigarette use among our youth, the tobacco industry, including companies like JUUL, deliberately used and continues to use innovative products and flavors and predatory marketing to attract the next generation of smokers.

As COVID-19, a highly contagious and sometimes life-threatening lower respiratory disease, looms ever-present in our lives everyday now, Big Tobacco wants to help YOU stay healthy? This is not only appalling, it’s downright vile. Indeed, if Big Tobacco cared about your health, it wouldn’t advertise, promote, and give away products that addict and make you sick, exploiting your fears and vulnerability at this challenging and unsettling time.

Big Tobacco should consider using the COVID-19 pandemic downtime to reassess its business model which profits from addiction, disease, despair, and death.

E-cigarette sales still strong even without flavored products: Study

Before COVID-19 was dominating headlines, many Americans were concerned about another deadly epidemic: vaping.

It’s been linked to more than 2,800 hospitalizations and deaths, though health officials haven’t linked any specific substance or products to the illnesses, and no single product has been associated with all of the cases.

E-cigarette sales in the United States steadily rose from 2016 to 2018, with youth-friendly, candy- and fruit-flavored products that critics say targeted teens fueling most of that growth. Facing mounting criticism as reports of vaping-associated lung disease rose, the popular vaping brand JUUL ended in-store sales of fruit- and candy-flavored products in November 2018.

But, according to a new study, those actions have had little effect. Sales of e-cigarettes remain strong even after the measures taken to curb purchases of youth-friendly products, raising questions about federal regulations and how to best protect American youth from harming themselves by vaping.

After companies stepped in to self-regulate, e-cigarette sales dropped for about two months but quickly rebounded, soon exceeding previous highs, according to the study by the American Cancer Society published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study’s authors said the data show a glaring shortcoming in allowing e-cigarette companies largely to self-regulate in lieu of coordinated federal regulations. In December, more than a year after JUUL stopped selling fruit- and candy-flavored products, Congress did ban the sale of all tobacco and e-cigarettes to anyone younger than 21.

A spokesperson for JUUL told ABC News that the company is working closely with regulators, attorneys, public health officials and other stakeholders to combat underage use of its products and “will continue to reset the vapor category in the U.S. and seek to earn the trust of society.” Juul has also long maintained its products are intended for adults looking to switch from combustible cigarettes.

The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates tobacco products, said it was reviewing the findings of the recent study, which will be evaluated as part of a larger body of evidence.

The study, based on sales figures from the market research firm Nielsen, only collected data from brick-and-mortar retailers and may not show the whole picture. Online sales of vaping products could be much higher, especially among younger buyers, according to experts.

“The trends being reported in this paper are likely to be an underestimate of the total volume of sales across the country,” said Dr. Andy Tan, a public health researcher at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The study didn’t track purchases by individual customers and wasn’t broken down into age groups. Nevertheless, the data offers a “snapshot” of e-cigarette sales over time in certain stores and suggests vaping continues to be popular despite the voluntary removal of fruit- and candy-flavored products by e-cigarette companies, Tan noted.

Outside surveys have corroborated the idea that many middle school and high school students simply switched to mint, menthol and tobacco flavors. Believing that the removal of a few flavors of a highly successful product would make a significant dent in usage is “highly naive,” Tan added, “because these products are highly addictive.”

Alex Liber, one of the study’s lead scientists, added: “JUUL was able to transition sales of other flavors easily by simply swapping which flavors were being displayed in stores.”

JUUL’s sales also likely got a boost, Liber added, thanks to new part-owner Altria, a massive distributor of tobacco products that also owns Philip Morris USA, the producer of Marlboro cigarettes.

From 2016 to 2019, according to a National Youth Tobacco survey, flavor preferences among high school students shifted, with those vaping menthol or mint flavors increasing to 57% from 16%.

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that JUUL’s self-regulation was insufficient to curb the use of these products, although it’s too soon to determine how big of an impact changing the legal purchasing age to 21 may have.

“Business acts to serve its own interests,” Liber said, “while well-constructed government regulation can serve the public interest.”

Heather J. Kagan, M.D., an internal medicine resident physician at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit. Sony Salzman is the unit’s coordinating producer.