Health Matters: The Dangers of Vaping

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November 2019

Every year on the third Thursday in November, the American Cancer Society hosts the Great American Smokeout to encourage people to begin the process of quitting smoking. The Smokeout used to focus almost exclusively on quitting cigarettes, but the popularity of vaping (using e-cigarettes) requires us to broaden our focus.

Vaping involves inhaling vaporized chemicals such as nicotine by using “vape pens” or “juuls,” named after a popular manufacturer of the devices, JUUL Labs. The amount of nicotine in a single vape pen cartridge varies, but a typical JUUL cartridge has the equivalent of about 20 cigarettes. With such an efficient nicotine-delivery device, it’s easy to see how vaping is causing a whole new generation to become addicted very quickly. 

And it gets worse. Many teens and young adults have been buying counterfeit cartridges that include a toxic combination of THC, the principal psychoactive drug in marijuana, and other substances that can lead to a devastating new illness called vaping associated pulmonary illness (VAPI). This year, nearly 1,300 people have been sickened from vaping THC, nicotine or both, and at least 37 have died.

Before VAPI was identified, patients were showing up in hospital emergency departments complaining of nausea, diarrhea, labored breathing, and upper respiratory symptoms (coughing, congestion, chest pain, etc.), and doctors were baffled. Why would otherwise healthy 18- and 19-year-olds get so sick so quickly? 

Some were diagnosed with a lung infection, given strong antibiotics, and sent home. Others were diagnosed with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and hospitalized. Still others had lost so much weight in the preceding weeks, doctors screened them for cancer. At least one 18-year-old was transferred to the ICU, connected to a breathing tube, and placed in a medically induced coma for a week.  

E-cigarettes were originally touted as tool to aid cigarette smokers in their desire to quit smoking. The idea was that vape pen cartridges could have less nicotine, fewer chemicals, no smoke, and still give smokers the familiar feel of smoking. However, to date there is no scientific evidence that vaping helps smokers quit. Quite the opposite. E-cigarettes have become a $7-billion-a-year business, in part by attracting young non-smokers with cartridges that feature not only huge quantities of nicotine, but in flavors such as cotton candy and bubble gum.

People who vape sometimes mistakenly believe they are inhaling water vapor, when in fact, they are inhaling fine particles with toxic chemicals that have been linked to cancer, respiratory disease and heart disease. And while many of the VAPI cases were caused by counterfeit cartridges, the FDA bowed to pressure from lobbyists when vaping devices first hit the market in 2007, and they did little to study and restrict the devices.

A recent New York Times article titled, “E-Cigarettes Went Unchecked in 10 Years of Federal Inaction,” said this:

In dozens of interviews, federal officials and public health experts described a lost decade of inaction, blaming an intense lobbying effort by the e-cigarette and tobacco industries, fears of a political backlash in tobacco-friendly states, bureaucratic delays, and a late reprieve by an F.D.A. commissioner who had previously served on the board of a chain of vaping lounges.

Now government and health agencies are playing catch-up. A recent press release from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) said the Governor’s Office has directed CDPH to launch a $20 million statewide digital and social media campaign to educate youth, young adults and parents about the dangers of vaping. How sad that instead of preventing this catastrophe, we are now trying to help young people understand the danger they’re in and convince them they should quit. For anyone who has spent time among teens, they know what a tough sell this will be. Teens will do what is cool and believe they are immune to danger, and the few who want to quit are about to find out how incredibly addictive nicotine is. 

For additional resources, visit the Ukiah Unified School District webpage on the subject: www.uusd.net/apps/news/article/1103107.


Talitha Marty is a physician assistant at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral healthcare to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.

 

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