"Follow the Science" Cannot Be Used As a Shield

What has become of the American attention span? It seems that we are unable to pay attention to more than one thing at a time and easily distracted by the next shiny object that catches our attention. As a former pro wrestler, think about a wrestling match where you witnessed the “bad guy” reach into his tights and pull out a foreign object and jab it into the eyes of his "good guy" competitor, unfortunately, 5000 people in attendance see this but the referee, who is standing just inches away, doesn’t. This goes on and on until the good guy grabs the object, the referee suddenly sees it and disqualifies the good guy. It’s infuriating to the fans but all part of the illusion in which the wrestlers, the referee, and the paying public all knowingly participate in the art of manipulation and being willing to be manipulated - or priming, using a term from psychology. Think of COVID-19 as our society's foreign object or shiny thing that has a great number of Americans mesmerized and falling for the priming by the media and our "leaders". Why are we suddenly oblivious to everything happening around us while “shiny” COVID seems to be blinding us?

A pro wrestling match involves everyone

"Follow the science" has been the mantra with many during this pandemic while seemingly ignoring the "science" in other health care and economic areas. A good number of those who use this phrase are actually ignoring "science" or selectively following the "science" that supports their political or other belief systems no matter what other information may be presented to them. This is not only wrong but extremely dangerous.

What are some examples where science is being ignored? Drive down Interstate 95 and you’ll see billboards put into place by Lifespan, reminding us that other diseases like cancer, cardiac conditions, memory issues, and stroke concerns still exist and are now flourishing alongside COVID. In fact, there are experts in these fields that are predicting a tremendous increase in deaths - far surpassing those caused by COVID-19 - as a result of ignoring this "science" in favor of the screaming headlines about this coronavirus. Let’s look at the deaths that occur annually:

  • Cancer – states that in 2020, over 606,000 people will have died from cancer, which averages over 1600 deaths daily;

  • Heart Attacks – According to a government study, over 650,000 people die from heart attacks each year, or one every 36 seconds;

  • Stroke – the National Institute of Health reports that nearly 140,000 people die of strokes annually while nearly 800,000 experience one with many suffering life-altering side effects;

  • Seasonal Flu – the CDC reports that the flu sickens anywhere between 9 million and 45 million people annually resulting in nearly one million hospitalizations and an average of 61,000 deaths.

Let’s look at some other numbers from the CDC on annual deaths:

  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 167,127;

  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 159,486;

  • Alzheimer’s disease: 122,019;

  • Diabetes: 84,946;

  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis: 51,386;

  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 48,344.

But I want to discuss a human example of this. My friend Carl. And I want to focus on vaping and lung health since this seems to be his area of "scientific" interest. I know Carl from the gym I have been going to for years, and he is all about “following the science”. He walks around the gym imploring people to “pull up your masks” and lecturing them on spreading “the Rona” and putting his “life at risk by ignoring science”. "Wash your hands!" he implores others. And he will not entertain any credible research about some of the downsides of wearing masks. Yet, after his workout, he walks out to his car, takes off his mask, and takes a deep breath on his vaping pen.

Masking at the gym

Carl is nearly my age (retirement) and told me that he “knows” that vaping helps the lungs when it comes to warding off COVID-19. When I vehemently disagreed with him, he said I was "so, so wrong", citing “research” that proved him right. Where did he get his information on this? Why, from the salesman selling vaping products, of course. Carl is also an outspoken proponent of "medical marijuana", touting its "medicinal" properties.

"Vaping is just water vapor, it keeps my lungs hydrated, hydration helps fight off the coronavirus. Using a menthol flavor enlarges the airways and makes it difficult for bacteria and viruses to attach themselves. It’s better and healthier than smoking, but even using tobacco with menthol helps, except the tar is bad for your lungs," Carl explained. OK.

“This is really good for you on many levels,” Carl continued. “It's all-natural, the only thing going into my lungs and coming out is water. Hydration. We need to follow the science.”

Carl went on to tell me all the good things about vaping, citing medical literature and statistics that supported the health benefits of his activity. And again, where did he get his "science" that he follows? From "the place where I buy my products. these people are all well-trained." Not a place where I would be comfortable seeking medical advice about something that I would be putting into my lungs, but apparently he felt good about it.

But let's expound on Carl's newfound healthy lifestyle and COVID prevention "knowledge" -- there are some facts on vaping that need to be stated. In a nutshell, vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling vapor from a small battery-powered device containing a liquid that may or may not contain nicotine or in some cases, can contain cannabis. When you inhale on the mouthpiece of the device, it activates a heating element. This heats up the liquid in the pod and turns it into vapor. You then inhale the vapor, hence, the term "vaping".

Vaping is not risk free

To be fair, many medical experts agree that vaping appears to be a better choice than inhaling the smoke and tar that is contained in tobacco or cannabis cigarettes, but it is not without its dangers and older adults and seniors need to be aware that we are just beginning to see problems arise with vaping -- and also to understand that this phenomenon is just starting to catch on with baby boomers, a group already prone to respiratory issues as the normal process of aging.

Over a year ago, federal authorities sent out a warning about the ever-growing problem of serious lung-related illnesses associated with vaping. Those who claim that vaping is "natural and healthy" need to consider some other "science" facts, including:

  • The vape liquids, called “e-liquids”, are sold in convenience stores, gas stations and other “non-medical” locations and users have no idea what’s in that vanilla, cinnamon, or cherry liquid (many states have now put regulations into who can sell these products, including those in Southern New England). In fact, there is some concern, however, that some illnesses being reported may be associated with these liquids being mixed in unsanitary and unregulated environments or "knock-off" liquids are being sold on the street or in corner stores;

  • Researchers have found some surprising things in those “healthy” fruit flavorings. Propylene glycol, the main ingredient in many of these vape liquids, turns into an entirely different chemical compound when heated and inhaled, causing lung irritation and promoting an environment where bacteria could grow freely. The problem here is that vaping is relatively new and we don’t know what the long term effects will be;

  • Although the salespeople who sell these products tell you it is harmless water vapor, the Surgeon General has found that ultrafine particles are created that are inhaled deep into the lungs;

  • A flavor in many liquids called diacetyl has been linked to serious lung diseases including one called "popcorn lung";

  • Vape liquids include volatile organics heavy metals such as nickel, tin and lead;

  • Keep in mind It took decades to understand the dangers of smoking tobacco and at one point, medical doctors recommended cigarettes for their patients and even advertised the medical benefits of smoking;

  • Chemicals present include formaldehyde (a chemical associated with the development of several forms of cancer) and acrolein (associated with pulmonary edema) has been found in some vape liquids.

Vaping flavors are

But what about Carl's favorite words, "follow the science"? Unfortunately for Carl, his words are not supported by the science he purports to be a big fan of. A recent "scientific" study by the Stanford University School of Medicine found that vaping substantially “increased the risk of COVID-19 among young people." Here's what it found:

  • Among young people who were tested for the virus that causes COVID-19, the research found that those who vaped were five to seven times more likely to be infected than those who did not use e-cigarettes.

“Young people may believe their age protects them from contracting the virus or that they will not experience symptoms of COVID-19, but the data show this isn’t true among those who vape,” said the study’s lead author, postdoctoral scholar Shivani Mathur Gaiha, Ph.D.

“This study tells us pretty clearly that youth who are using vapes or are dual-using [e-cigarettes and cigarettes] are at elevated risk, and it’s not just a small increase in risk; it’s a big one,” Gaiha said.

One could argue that this study involved young people but what about older people who are more severely affected by this coronavirus and among whom it is most deadly, especially for those with pre-existing conditions? This we do know, smoking and vaping have harmful effects on the body for people of any age, making it harder for the body to fight infections. This includes serious infections like COVID-19. Here are some "science" facts that researchers have released:

  • If a person who smokes contracts COVID-19, they are more than twice as likely to develop a severe case of COVID-19 than those with no smoking history. This means if a person smokes and contracts COVID-19, they are more likely to be admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), placed on a ventilator (breathing machine), or potentially die from the virus;

  • Menthol and other flavorings in tobacco products (including e-cigarettes) can also make lung infections worse. People who smoke or vape also have a higher risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, a long-term lung disease that affects how well air flows through the lungs). COPD could make COVID-19 infections worse.

Let’s look at “following the science” when it comes to using vapor products, cigarettes with menthol, and other products that contain tobacco or menthol extracts and flavors:

  • Tobacco use increases levels of angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). ACE2 is an enzyme that helps the COVID-19 virus attach to cells in the lung once it enters the body (so much for Carl's assertion of vaping keeping COVID from attaching to the lungs);

  • Smoking and vaping damage the cilia (hairlike structures that line the lungs to help move air throughout the lungs). This makes it easier for the COVID-19 virus to enter the lungs;

  • Smoking and vaping damage neutrophils and macrophages (certain types of white blood cells that help fight infections). This makes it harder for the body to fight viral infections;

  • Many tobacco flavorings, including menthol, negatively affect how well lung and airway cells can fight infections.

And could the use of tobacco products or vaping help spread COVID-19? Some studies say yes in two ways:

  • If a person who smokes or vapes has COVID19 but does not show symptoms, they are more likely to spread the COVID-19 virus through coughing. People who smoke might also confuse a “smoker’s cough” with a cough caused by COVID-19;

  • Smoking and vaping involve hand-to-mouth contact. This makes it easier for the COVID-19 virus to spread from their mouth to their hands and onto other surfaces.

Finally, what about Carl’s assertion that “medical” and recreational marijuana are much better than tobacco because of the medicinal effects? Although it’s far too early to study the effects of long-term marijuana smoking in older people and seniors, a dangerous trend is arising among younger people that give us pause.

Over the past 4 decades, the incidence of esophageal adenocarcinoma (EAC) has increased in the U.S. in individuals younger than 50, according to a large population-based study. Several lines of evidence, including the presence of known carcinogens and cocarcinogens in marijuana smoke, as well as results from cellular, tissue, animal, and human studies, suggest that marijuana smoking may predispose to cancer, particularly respiratory tract and head and neck cancers. To be fair, many of these studies have produced varying results, but consider that in the mid-1900s, many believed that smoking had many health benefits.

But back to Carl's use of the phrase, "follow the science". In Carl's case, and in the case of many who use these words, "following the science" is used as a shield for what they want to believe or for what their preferred policies or political opinions are. In the end, using science to attack politicians, policies, or laws that someone dislikes is not only unfair but undermines the credibility of science and presents a danger to all of us - especially in an age where Facebook opinions seem to replace facts.

It's important that we read and consider all studies, even those that go against our belief system. We all need to remain open to evidence that may conflict with what we believe and be guided by "the facts" and not our emotions. It's not only good for us personally but good for us as a society. This is the correct way to "follow the science".

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