There is disturbing news concerning the use of e-cigarettes, which is most commonly known as vaping. A New York Times article that also appeared in the Sept. 1 Sunday LNP noted that U.S. physicians have treated more than 200 patients “with mysterious and life-threatening vaping-related illnesses this summer.” In an Aug. 30 advisory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that its ongoing investigation of these illnesses “has not identified any specific substance or e-cigarette product that is linked to all cases,” but that “many patients report using e-cigarette products with liquids that contain cannabinoid products, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).”
This is now a life and death issue.
At least two people — one in Illinois and one in Oregon — have died of severe respiratory illness linked to vaping, The Associated Press reported Wednesday.
Vapers have been hospitalized in 25 states this summer. Their symptoms, according to the CDC, include a cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, fever and/or weight loss.
A common denominator is that they used e-cigarettes. Beyond that, there are more questions than answers, as the investigation into the specific cause of the mystery illness continues.
Some who have been hospitalized used vaping products containing marijuana oil from legal dispensaries. It’s possible some of those products were contaminated, or that something was added to the liquid in the device after its purchase.
“Health officials in some states have said a number of people who got sick had vaped products containing THC, the compound that gives marijuana its high,” the AP reported, importantly adding that “there have been respiratory illnesses diagnosed where the vaping product did not contain marijuana.”
The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported Thursday that an oil derived from vitamin E is present “in samples of marijuana products used by people sickened in different parts of the country and who used different brands of products in recent weeks.” But the Post also spoke with officials who “cautioned that they are a long way from understanding what exactly is making so many people sick.”
The point is we don’t know yet.
What we do know is that, fatal or not, vaping is problematic, particularly for kids (more on that in a bit).
Regarding the outbreak, the CDC has the following recommendations:
— “While this investigation is ongoing, if you are concerned about these specific health risks, consider not using e-cigarette products.”
— “If you do use e-cigarette products and you experience symptoms like those reported in this outbreak, seek medical care promptly.”
We don’t believe those guidelines are strong enough. And we’re not alone.
Dr. Ann Thomas of the Oregon Health Authority, speaking to the AP about the death in that state, said flatly, “It’s kind of scary and it’s hard to believe that any vaping is really safe at this point.”
This is a terrifying situation.
Children at risk
What makes this outbreak especially alarming is the number of children and young adults who vape.
The LNP Editorial Board has written twice in the past year about the great concern over the rising use of e-cigarettes by our children. Data from the 2017 Pennsylvania Youth Survey showed that 11% of Lancaster County students — and about 20% of high school seniors — vaped at least once within a 30-day period.
Children who vape are already at risk for nicotine addiction, for harm to their still-developing brains and for decreased respiratory health. They are also statistically more likely to try regular cigarettes.
And now this mystery illness represents another health risk.
We applauded the Pennsylvania Department of Health campaign that was launched in June to help parents prevent children from vaping. “It is so important to talk to your kids to let them know that vaping is dangerous for them and their future health,” Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine stated.
We also applaud moves being made across the country to limit the appeal and availability of e-cigarettes to young people.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday “ordered the state health department to issue emergency rules that will prohibit the sale of flavored nicotine vaping products, including to adults, and the misleading marketing of e-cigarettes,” the AP reported. A court challenge is certainly ahead, but other governors, including our own, should follow Whitmer’s lead.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said he will introduce legislation to tax e-cigarettes in the same way as traditional cigarettes, as a way of reducing their appeal to teenagers.
“The products are highly addictive,” Wyden told the AP. “They’re subject to minimal safety standards and oversights, exposing users to dangerous chemicals ... and they are getting into the hands of more and more young people.”
We must call on our state and federal lawmakers to make sure that companies such as Juul, which controls about 75% of the U.S. e-cigarette market, don’t specifically target our children with their products and advertising campaigns.
In the meantime, we should do as Levine says and talk with our kids. This national outbreak — and its two associated deaths — represents an entry point for conversations about the health dangers associated with vaping.
And, until we know more, we must assume those dangers are present for everyone who vapes. Anyone who uses e-cigarettes should reconsider.
Help is available for those who want to quit. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW or visit smokefree.gov for more information.