Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that more than 450 possible cases of lung illness were likely associated with the use of e-cigarette products. According to the CDC, 33 states, including Virginia, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands, have reported incidences of illness. Symptoms of the mysterious disease include chest pain and breathing difficulties. Some patients developed gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea) or fatigue and fever. Several of those affected went into acute respiratory failure. As of this writing, five deaths have been directly attributed to use of the tobacco-less products.
What exactly is causing the illnesses is unknown. The mystery has launched a full-scale investigation by the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and numerous state and local health departments. The CDC says there is no one specific brand, product or e-cigarette that seems to be the cause. People have taken ill while using a variety of devices, cartridges and refill pods. Some of those taken ill reported using marijuana-based products and others claimed to be using nicotine-only products. To date, no one substance has been linked to all products. While several of the marijuana samples tested contained oil made from vitamin E, not all did.
The Milwaukee (Wis.) Health Department, among others, have urged people to stop vaping immediately. And the federal government has turned its eye upon vaping giant, Juul Labs. On Monday, the FDA warned the company it would be challenging Juul’s claims in marketing materials, that its products are “99 percent safer than cigarettes, “much safer” than cigarettes, “totally safe” and “a safer alternative than smoking cigarettes.”
In the warning, Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless noted that “regardless of where products like e-cigarettes fall on the continuum of tobacco product risk, the law is clear that, before marketing tobacco products for reduced risk, companies must demonstrate with scientific evidence that their specific product does in fact pose less risk or is less harmful. Juul has ignored the law and, very concerningly, has made some of these statements in school to our nation’s youth.”
While still legal, calls for banning vaping are growing louder. But is a total ban on the electronic devices in response to a relatively new illness affecting a tiny fraction of vapers the answer? More than 9 million Americans vape—many have been doing so for years. Even the CDC’s website notes that e-cigs “have the potential to benefit adult smokers who are not pregnant if used as a complete substitute for regular cigarettes and other smoked tobacco products.” There is less danger from secondhand smoke and the stench of cigarettes is absent. If someone’s addiction lies between lighting up a chemical-laden cigarette and an e-cigarette, it seems to us the electronic device would the better choice.
At this point, the best advice from doctors applies to all types of cigarettes: If you smoke, quit. If you don’t smoke, don’t start.