The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has backtracked on its previous hardline position on vaping and the coronavirus, saying on Wednesday that there is no known evidence that vaping puts an individual at higher risk of developing complications tied to COVID-19. However, the federal agency continued to warn that smoking cigarettes did pose a danger.
"E-cigarette use can expose the lungs to toxic chemicals, but whether those exposures increase the risk of COVID-19 is not known," the FDA wrote in an emailed statement to Bloomberg News.
The decision comes after weeks of outrage from some in the tobacco control community who were upset that the FDA said vapers with underlying health conditions were at an elevated risk of compounding complications if they contracted the coronavirus.
"The FDA deserves no applause for eventually arriving at the right public stance, which is that there is no evidence linking the use of nicotine vaping products to COVID-19 infection or severity," Gregory Conley, the president of the American Vaping Association, told VICE. "It was wholly irresponsible for the FDA to add fuel to the fire several weeks ago by commenting on a subject they now admit they know nothing about."
On March 31, the attorney general of Iowa, Tom Miller, joined a collection of scientists and policy experts in sending a letter to the FDA critiquing its previous stance on vaping and the coronavirus. The signatories—which included professors from Harvard, New York University, and the University of Michigan—drafted the note in response to an earlier Bloomberg News story, titled "Vaping Could Compound Health Risks Tied to Virus, FDA Says." The article's headline, they argued, did not make it clear that the agency was stating that vaping "could compound health risks tied to [the] virus" for those already with underlying health conditions; it was not implying that vaping itself caused those effects.
The authors of the letter asserted that such underlying health conditions were likely caused by a lifetime of smoking, and that the FDA had to be careful in giving advice to former smokers who may have switched to vaping in order to ditch combustible cigarettes. The authors see vaping as an effective harm-reduction tool and a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.
"On what basis is FDA confident that it is right to discourage people with underlying smoking-related conditions from vaping at this time, given the likely alternative for many is a return to smoking?" the March letter asked. "Where is the evidence-based reasoning that advising adult smokers against vaping is appropriate for the protection of public health at any time, but especially during this COVID-19 crisis?"
The agency has faced multiple vaping-related snafus over the last year. As confusion mounted when people started dying from vaping-linked illnesses (EVALI) last summer, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took months to acknowledge that almost all of the diseases and fatalities could be tied to tainted and illicit THC cartridges, not legal nicotine-based e-liquids. But the narrative that it could be any vape device, whether it be nicotine or THC, was already out in the world—providing a setback to the vaping community and industry, according to harm-reduction proponents and pro-vaping activists.
"I'm glad the FDA has decided to walk back on their statement, unlike many others in public health that are using a pandemic to further their unscientific war on vaping," said Matt Culley, a board member for the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association and a prominent online vaping advocate. "Unfortunately, like we saw last year with EVALI misinformation, the damage is already done, and this will hurt tobacco harm reduction efforts in the long term."
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