1-in-3 young adults vulnerable to severe COVID-19, smoking and vaping play big role: study

FILE A man shrouded in shadow blows out a cloud of smoke after vaping. (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)

One-third of young people in the US are at risk of getting seriously sick with COVID-19 and smoking or vaping greatly increases vulnerability, according to a UCSF study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health on Monday.

The study focused on smoking-related behavior and it specifically targeted young adults ranging from 18 to 25 years old. The authors aimed to estimate the percentage of young adults, both smoking and nonsmoking, medically at risk for a severe COVID-19 illness. It found that smoking is the most common risk factor for severe COVID-19 complications within this age group,

Researchers say young men who smoke or vape may double their risk of serious complications, including death. The risk for young women is increased 1 1/2 times compared to their peers who don't vape or smoke. 

“I think most young adults don’t think they’re at risk,” said Dr. Charles Irwin Jr., senior author of the study and director of the UCSF Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, per the San Francisco Chronicle. “To me, that was shocking to find that smoking contributed so much to being at risk. ... It’s a message that you might be able to do something about.”

The study, guided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention risk indicators, analyzed medical data from 8,405 people ages 18 to 25 through the National Health Interview Survey, a nationally representative data set from 2016 to 2018.

The authors looked at medical conditions to develop an overall indicator of medical vulnerability for severe COVID-19 cases. The risk factors identified by the CDC include heart condition, diabetes, asthma, immune condition, liver condition, obesity, and smoking. E-cigarettes were not included in the CDC’s indicator list. The authors of the study included them as a smoking-related risk factor because of its adverse effects on respiratory and immune function.

Ten percent of the young people surveyed had smoked tobacco in the past 30 days and 1 in 14 said they used e-cigarettes. Of the group surveyed, 32 percent were at risk of getting severely sick from COVID-19. The risk is cut in half (16 percent) for nonsmokers.

The study analyzed differences by race and ethnicity and found whites to have higher vulnerability when compared to Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, which aligns with higher rates of smoking and e-cigarette use among whites.

The findings come as the nation sees a surge in COVID-19 cases with the younger population being a major contributor. In California, Governor Newsom on Monday issued a new order that says all counties must shutter certain indoor activities as coronavirus cases in the state rise.