Health: Popcorn disease is a new way to injure the lungs

“What’s your secret for good health and longevity?” I have been asked repeatedly on radio, TV, and in interviews. My reply is simple. “You must learn early in life to practice a sound lifestyle and continue it forever.” This should be easy. Yet we are not learning from history.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal has reported the case of a 17-year-old boy, who has been seriously injured from smoking e-cigarettes.

Several cases of lung injury have been reported recently in North America. But this particular patient should get more headlines than others due to its unique cause. The CMAJ reports that the vaping injury was similar to, “Popcorn Lung”. This is a condition seen in workers exposed to the chemical flavouring, diacetyl, an ingredient used in microwave popcorn.

It appears that the problem is not the consumption of popcorn. But, if it’s inhaled, the chemical results in “bronchiolitis” which causes inflammation and obstruction of the small airways of the lungs. This is not a minor problem and is life-threatening.

Doctors were told the teenager had suffered from intractable coughing for a week. And that he had smoked a variety of flavoured cartridges along with THC marijuana that causes a high. By the time he was seen in hospital it was obvious he was critically ill, needed life-support, and was referred to a lung transplant centre.

Fortunately, this teenager narrowly escaped a double lung transplant. But he has been left with chronic lung damage at this early age. For the moment he is no longer smoking e-cigarettes, cannabis and tobacco. But it’s been a lesson learned too late.

The CMAJ states that, according to a 2017 report, e-cigarettes are the most commonly used nicotine product among Canadian youth. It boggles the mind that 272,000 children aged 15 to 24 are using e-cigarettes.

Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, Deputy Editor of the CMAJ, urges the government to ban these harmful substances, and to ignore fearmongering from the tobacco industry that people will revert to smoking cigarettes. Amen to that message.

I wrote years ago that it’s safer to perform mouth to mouth resuscitation on Dracula than to light up a cigarette. The hazards are so overwhelming and the facts have not changed. Today, 90 per cent of lung cancer deaths, 80 per cent of chronic bronchitis and emphysema and 25 per cent of heart disease and stroke are due to inhaling tobacco.

A medical professor once started his lecture by saying, “This talk has been given before, but must be given again, because the first time no one listened.”

The point that health authorities must voice repeatedly is that cigarette smoking is now the most preventable cause of death worldwide. Several years ago I interviewed professor Richard Peto of Oxford University. His large study showed that those who started smoking at an early age lost on average twenty years of life. This is a huge price to pay.

Sir Walter Raleigh, a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, was acclaimed for introducing tobacco into England. Rather than celebrating the discovery, she would have been wise to see it a dangerous threat and hang him from the yardarm. Today’s health authorities, knowing the facts, should not stand by complacently.

Some diseases kill quickly and everyone takes notice. But lung cancer and other chronic lung diseases may take years to end lives. This makes it a hard sell to convince people to change bad habits.

Since teenagers believe they’re going to live forever, getting them to avoid hazards is a much harder sell. Maybe parents could paste this column on the refrigerator door. Young people just might read it and decide to save their lives.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones can be reached at

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Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS A man exhales while smoking an e-cigarette in Portland, Maine. Smoking e-cigarettes is leading to cases similar to “Popcorn Lung,” a condition seen in workers exposed to microwave popcorn chemical flavouring diacetyl.

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