Texas Man Claims Vaping Gave Him Popcorn Lung

The longtime smoker blames vaping for his lung condition. Is that possible?

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A Texas man is claiming that vaping has caused what he claims is popcorn lung. But the story doesn’t add up.

Tommy Lowrance, a business professor at a Waco community college, told KCEN-TV that he has been diagnosed with popcorn lung after vaping for “a short period of time” to help him quit smoking.

He said that soon after he quit smoking with e-cigs, “I was healthier than I’ve ever been.” Then the 45-year-old says he was diagnosed with popcorn lung.

“I can’t exhale air out of my lungs at all,” Lowrance told the NBC affiliate. “I have about a 20-percent lung function. For most Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) patients, say, they have far better lung function than me.”

What is popcorn lung?

Popcorn lung is a slang name for a condition called bronchiolitis obliterans (BO). It gets its name from a group of workers in microwave popcorn factories that were stricken with BO after breathing large quantities of flavorings.

Popcorn lung is caused when the smallest airways within the lungs (bronchioles) are scarred, and their capacity and efficiency are reduced to the point that breathing becomes difficult. There is no cure for BO except a lung transplant.

BO is impossible to accurately diagnose without doing a surgical lung biopsy — which requires opening the chest — and sometimes not even then. And the symptoms are easily confused with those of COPD, a far more common condition. COPD is common among longtime smokers.

Further, the chemical that is usually blamed for BO — the flavoring component diacetyl — is found in much higher concentrations in cigarettes than it is in e-liquid. In fact, e-liquid that contains high levels of diacetyl is very uncommon these days.

Despite the fact that diacetyl is far most evident in cigarettes than e-liquid, no smoker has ever been diagnosed with BO. And no vaper has been either.

Where is the evidence?

The TV station asked few questions of Mr. Lowrance, essentially accepting his story at face value. And we were unable to find any other accounts of his medical ordeal. The KCEN article claims that Lowrance has “been treated by some of the best lung doctors in the world,” but none of the doctors were quoted in the article.

The story says that, “although they cannot say definitively that his condition came as a result of vaping — simply because there is not enough information available yet about long-term effects — they all agree it was most likely the cause.”

That’s disturbing. If some of the best lung doctors in the world “all agree” that vaping is “most likely” the cause — based on guessing — why weren’t they quoted in the article? If this is all true, reporter Chris Rogers might earn a Pulitzer Prize for exposing a real danger of vaping. This would become a recognized hazard, rather than just a fantasy of fact-averse anti-vaping activists and a dream of personal injury lawyers.

Who profits from the fear of popcorn lung?

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It’s not surprising that the fear-mongering articles like this one have created an atmosphere ripe for exploitation by personal injury lawyers. Searching “popcorn lung Texas” on Google, I found attorneys among the most popular links.

Even if a link cannot be proven between vaping and popcorn lung, a lawyer can be successful merely by threatening vape manufacturers. Businesses with liability insurance may find their insurance companies would rather settle for a portion of what the suit seeks than to dedicate the effort and expense required to fight the accusation in court.

Every time a story like this surfaces, a few more smokers decide to steer clear of vaping and stick with their cigarettes. The reporters never explain that even if the story is true, cigarettes are still much more dangerous than vaping.

But the story is not true. The story is never true. And the result is that more smokers will get sick and die.

Jim McDonald
Smokers created vaping without any help from the tobacco industry or anti-smoking crusaders, and vapers have the right to keep innovating to help themselves. My goal is to provide clear, honest information about the challenges vaping faces from lawmakers, regulators, and brokers of disinformation. I recently joined the CASAA board, but my opinions aren’t necessarily CASAA’s, and vice versa. You can find me on Twitter @whycherrywhy