In recent months, an epidemic of lung-related illnesses has been sprouting up throughout the United States. Health officials are now warning that one of the major causes is vaping.
So far, 12 people in the United States have died from a vaping-related lung disease while 805 people have reported lung illnesses associated with e-cigarettes. These numbers have continued to steadily increase.
Many health professionals have been extremely vocal about how harmful vaping can be, including Dr. Andrea Covey, a pulmonologist at the Kansas City Veterans Affairs health system, who speaks to local high school students about the health risks involved in using e-cigarettes.
“Once I realized how many problems are associated with vaping, I became actually pretty passionate about the whole thing,” explains Covey. “Teens are much more likely to use e-cigarettes than cigarettes, and they have no idea what is in them.”
Covey says part of the problem with the vaping epidemic is that e-cigarettes are not yet regulated by the FDA, while big vape companies use techniques copied from big tobacco to target children and young adults. Meanwhile, the same standards set in place for cigarettes aren’t forced on e-cigarette companies.
“It’s banned for cigarettes to have flavored tobacco because the evidence is clear that flavored tobacco targets children and increases the rates that young adults smoke,” says Covey. “So, that’s banned in combustible cigarettes, but that’s Juul’s most popular flavors.”
Despite the claims that e-cigarettes help “stamp out smoking,” statistics show that teens who vape are far more likely to begin smoking combustible cigarettes later. One research study estimates that, nationally, 178,850 US youths between the ages of 12-15 years vaped and then went on to try combustible cigarettes.
“Children and young adults are our future, and what they’ve got right now is an unregulated chemical being sold to them by very good advertisers,” says Covey. “There is no medical reason to use e-cigarettes ever.”
Because there are so many different vaping companies and products, the health issues surrounding the vape industry are extremely difficult to pin down. For example, the e-cigarette manufacturer Juul is vastly different from other e-cigarette manufacturers.
“Juuling actually uses a unique mechanism to obtain incredibly high blood levels of nicotine unlike other e-cigarettes, so it’s far more addictive than other e-cigarettes,” explains Covey. “The nicotine content of Juuling is five percent, so each pod is the equivalent to two packs of cigarettes.”
While the lung illnesses linked to vaping don’t have a common thread, Vitamin E Acetate has been found in some samples collected from those who have fallen ill around the US and is being studied. According to the Washington Post, while the chemical itself is not harmful when used topically or ingested as a nutritional supplement, it must be heated up to vaporize, which could allow the vapor to cool down and return to its original state after coating the insides of your lungs with the oil.
The biggest problem surrounding the vaping epidemic is that we don’t know anything about the long-term safety of e-cigarettes or what differentiates one brand of products from another. Some cases of vaping-related lung disease have involved THC, and some have only involved nicotine.
“E-cigarettes are incredibly heterogeneous; they’re not uniform at all,” says Covey. “Some of them are designed to make big puffs of vapor, some of them are designed to be used for marijuana, some of them are truly designed to try and help people quit smoking…so, I think it’s really hard to tell which ones are harmful and which ones are not.”
Doctors say this lung disease that has sickened at least 805 people in the US, resembles lipoid pneumonia, which can cause respiratory failure. Patients have shown an array of symptoms, including coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, and fatigue. Anyone who has recently used a vaping product and begins to develop similar symptoms should see their health care provider.
“Your doctor cares about you and wants you to live a healthy nicotine-free life, and your doctor can work with you on the best ways to quit smoking safely and can follow you up for any bad side effects of e-cigarettes down the road; that’s something that’s important for your doctor to know about,” says Covey.