MANKATO, MINN. — Despite tobacco smoke being a common trigger for asthma, a recent report found Minnesota youths with the condition are more likely to smoke than their peers.
The Minnesota Department of Health revealed the surprising finding after analyzing data from the 2017 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey. Researchers found 30 percent of students with asthma in grades six through 12 used tobacco products, compared to 24 percent of youths without asthma.
Kate Cox, who works on anti-vaping education with high school students in the Mankato Project 4 Teens program, said it’s hard to imagine why teens with asthma would smoke at higher rates.
“It completely goes against conventional wisdom,” she said, noting she herself has asthma and knows tobacco smoke would worsen the condition.
Tobacco smoke contains mixtures of thousands of chemicals. The chemicals in the smoke irritate the lining of the lungs whether you have asthma or not.
“Whenever you put anything in your lungs, it causes inflammation,” said Dr. John Benson, a family medicine physician with Mankato Clinic. “That’s a problem (even) if you don’t have asthma.”
Asthma itself causes lung inflammation due to a person’s hypersensitive immune system. Adding an inflammatory trigger such as tobacco smoke has basically a doubling effect on someone with asthma.
Benson said teens sometimes think they’re invincible, which could be one reason why the smoking rate was higher than what would be expected for teens with asthma. He added environmental factors could be another possible explanation.
While acknowledging it couldn’t definitely say why the rates are higher for youth with asthma, the health department in a release stated health inequities could be the reason. Asthma rates are known to be higher among African American and Native American youths than white youths.
Minnesota teens with asthma also reported a higher percentage of their close friends smoke or vape. They also live with someone who uses tobacco at higher rates than youths without asthma, according to the analysis.
The finding adds to other troubling reports in recent weeks about the health risks of vaping, Cox said. The health department has now confirmed four cases of severe lung injuries associated with vaping, while investigating 11 more. Illinois health officials reported the first death linked to vaping Friday.
After Mankato high schoolers produced an anti-vaping public service announcement last school year, Project 4 Teens will remain focused on educating peers about it this year. Cox said she collects new research on vaping to incorporate it into the group’s efforts.
“There’s so much misunderstanding,” she said. “I think kids honestly believe because it’s not smoking a cigarette it won’t hurt them.”
Benson said there’s no indication vaping is a safer alternative to smoking.
“There’s plenty of particulates and toxins in the vape aerosol,” he said. “We just don’t know how dangerous it is.”