Weeks after he returned home from the hospital where he was placed on a ventilator with coronavirus symptoms, Anthony McHugh still has trouble walking up stairs or watering flowers. When the 68-year-old retired taxi driver starts to bend down, he has to stop.

Doctors can’t say for sure if the white mist detected in both of his lungs – a characteristic of COVID-19 – is a precursor to permanent scarring or pulmonary fibrosis, but they are certain that the air we breathe – perhaps, more than ever – continues to threaten our lives and the health of millions worldwide.

“Coronavirus has reminded us to think about breathing and the importance of protecting our lungs against neglect, bronchitis, mold, air pollution and smoking,” said Stuart Ratzan, founder and shareholder of Ratzan Weissman & Boldt, a Miami-based law firm specializing in catastrophic injury, medical malpractice, product liability and commercial cases nationwide. “Because October is National Healthy Lung Month, it is a perfect time to eliminate some of the dangerous factors in our lives that make the simple process of taking a breath more difficult.”

While much of the risk from COVID-19 is believed to increase with age, Ratzan said teenagers who vape may not only be exacerbating the virus, but they – themselves -- appear to be more vulnerable to an elevated threat of similar lung complications. Others agree.

Among teenagers who were tested for COVID, researchers at Stanford University found that those who vaped were five to seven times more likely to be infected than those who did not use e-cigarettes. That finding is cause for concern locally, considering nearly one in four Florida high school students now admit to vaping, up 63 percent from two years ago.

Up in Smoke

“Vaping can be just as harmful as cigarettes,” said Ratzan, who is well-versed in the dangers of tobacco use. He recently won a total of $42.5 million in damages from R.J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris for the family of a Florida smoker who died of lung cancer.

Ratzan successfully argued that the cigarette companies placed a hazardous and addictive product on the market and conspired to hide the dangers of smoking to Irene Gloger, a married medical professional, who died in 1996. Gloger began smoking as a child at age 14. After repeated attempts to quit smoking, she finally was able to stop one year prior to her death.

Health risks due to tobacco are nothing new. But despite the rise in e-cigarette use among teens, the federal government has done little to regulate its sales to youth populations in much the same way it began restricting tobacco products in 2009. As a result, less teens smoke today.

In the meantime, cigarette companies responded to the decline in regular cigarettes by buying up e-cigarette brands from small, independent manufacturers. To gain favor with public health experts, the same companies cast themselves today as socially responsible corporations for developing a non-combustible product that could serve as “public health solution” to end smoking.

Deja Vu

Now, decades after the U.S. government began regulating cigarette advertising, manufacturers and sellers of e-cigarettes are capitalizing on social media advertising, staging music festivals, offering college scholarships and introducing appealing flavors to aggressively target young consumers in much the same way they did generations ago.

“The cigarette industry is using most of the same tactics to get kids addicted to e-cigarettes that they used decades ago to get a whole generation addicted to cigarettes,” said Ratzan.”It’s a playbook that’s proven to work for them. And now vaping in the United States has been declared an epidemic among our teenage population.”

While tobacco companies continue to increase spending on e-cigarette marketing, the use of flavoring attractive to youth, and selling in convenience stores where kids can more readily secure the purchase of the product,, health experts attempt to get to the bottom of its related lung injuries. What they have found is that e-cigarettes are known to cause “popcorn lung,” an inflammation of small air ways in the lungs that makes it difficult to breathe, and also have reported a link to lung cancer and lung disease in laboratory animals exposed to e cigarette vapor.

Formally known as obliterative bronchiolitis, popcorn lung was first discovered when workers in a popcorn factory developed breathing problems after inhaling diacetyl, a chemical that is used to give foods including popcorn a buttery flavor. Diacetyl is also found in some liquids that are inhaled through an e-cigarette.

Worries about potential health threats have led dozens of countries to take steps to ban the nicotine vaporizers. However, the U.S. response has been somewhat tepid. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a plan earlier this year to clear the market of most cartridge-based, flavored e-cigarettes, at least 119 vaping-related pulmonary illnesses have been reported in the State of Florida alone this year.

Government Response

Despite the mounting health threat, Florida Gov. DeSantis vetoed legislation designed to reduce youth access and exposure to all tobacco products including e-cigarettes and other vaping devices. Lawmakers critical of vaping had passed legislation this summer that would have raised the age for tobacco sales and purchase to 21, making Florida law consistent with current federal law.

“Ironically, the cigarette companies don’t oppose age restrictions because they know that anything that makes the use of the product more ‘adult like’ also makes the product even more attractive to kids,” said Ratzan. “The cigarette industry has known this, and has agreed to age restrictions, for decades,” he added.

“Our lungs are precious to our survival,” said Ratzan. “If you smoke, it’s never too late to enjoy the rewards of quitting. If you have a cough that just won’t go away, don’t put it off until tomorrow. Go see a doctor today.”

Ratzan, Weissman and Boldt is dedicated to advocacy for patients, families and consumers who have suffered catastrophic personal injuries or death due to the wrongdoing of others. If you have suffered from the unhealthy medical effects of e-tobacco products including e-cigarettes, the premier trial and appellate lawyers at Ratzan, Weissman and Boldt will fight to get your story heard and the truth proven.