There’s something nervous, mysterious and quite possibly unhealthy in the air.
The popularity of electronic cigarettes — known as e-cigarettes, in a practice referred to as vaping — has grown dramatically in recent years across all age groups, including teenagers. Seen by many as a substitute for smoking tobacco, vaping has become a genuine craze.
But the safety of vaping remains a huge unknown.
A story in Saturday’s Press & Dakotan explored both the rise in the usage of e-cigarettes as well as the growing concerns about health issues.
Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported last week that an outbreak of critical lung disease among teens and young adults “is forcing federal agencies to grapple with a vast, nearly unregulated market of nicotine- and marijuana-based vaping products.” The number of cases, which rose over the weekend, stands at more than 215 in 25 states, including one confirmed death. And physicians say they aren’t really sure what they are dealing with, other than that the common denominator seems to be the use of e-cigarettes.
Currently, these products aren’t even subject to “truth in advertising” regulations until next year, which makes whatever claims are made about their contents and safety potentially suspect.
As a result, despite the spike in lung cases there have been no recalls issued, nor has there been official federal information released about what elements in e-cigarettes might be causing the illnesses.
Vaping’s popularity is skyrocketing, especially among younger users. According to a survey from the National Institutes of Health, the number of U.S. high school seniors who say they have vaped nicotine in the last 30 days has nearly doubled (11% to 21%) since 2017, which is “the largest increase ever recorded for any substance in the survey’s 43-year history,” according to the Vox news website. The number of high school seniors who vaped in general during the previous 30 days had reached an even higher rate (27%).
One reason vaping is popular is the problematic fact that it’s easy to disguise the e-cigarettes themselves, which can be passed off as thumb drives or other small, seemingly innocent electronic devices. As a result, e-cigarettes can be used in schools under a cloak of deception.
Also, the product has been increasingly marketed to younger users with the expansion of sweet and fruity flavors.
On Sunday, the New York Times ran a story on the mysterious illnesses, quoting one doctor who referred to the situation as an “epidemic.” The article noted, “Patients, mostly otherwise healthy and in their late teens and 20s, are showing up with severe shortness of breath, often after suffering for several days with vomiting, fever and fatigue. Some have wound up in the intensive care unit or on a ventilator for weeks.”
It has also been reported that many of the respiratory cases have involved e-cigarette products containing THC, which is found in marijuana.
Warnings are also circulating about bootleg vaping products, which can be altered in unknown ways and/or with unknown elements.
Because of the popularity of e-cigarettes, it’s important for agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to become more vigorously involved with these products.
The CDC, at least, appears to be taking some action. Over the holiday weekend, the agency issued a health alert headlined “Severe Pulmonary Disease Associated with Using E-Cigarette Products,” in which it warned that e-cigarettes contain several harmful products, including heavy metals (such as lead), nicotine, organic compounds and cancer-causing chemicals.
The issues of better understanding and oversight must be tackled by federal agencies sooner rather than later. The soaring popularity of these products — as well as their promotion as being a safe, healthy smoking “alternative” — makes it imperative to determine the risks and to determine guidelines. This must be a public health priority.