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When the smoke clears: Hazards of vaping apparent after six deaths, multiple illnesses

By in Opinions

Vaporizers that deliver a dose of nicotine or cannabis have been popular since 2010 and warnings of their potential health effects have been circulating ever since. 

Over the past few months, the damage done by these devices has become startlingly apparent. Six deaths and hundreds of illnesses have been reported across the United States and they all appear to be linked to vaping.

Vaping has long been considered a safe alternative to smoking. It was marketed as a way for smokers to wean themselves off cigarettes, but many adolescents began picking up a vape without ever lighting up. And while cigarette smoking has steadily decreased over the past few decades, vaping has risen significantly — especially among young populations.

It’s simply a case of trading one vice for another.

Vaporizers deliver a dose of your favourite substance — whether that’s nicotine, THC or CBD — in a vapour cloud, eliminating harsh smoke. The vapor is produced when a mixture of liquids used to dissolve the substance-du-jour are heated. These liquids are solvents like propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin, so you are still inhaling chemicals each time you take a puff.

The illusion of safety comes from both our knowledge of cigarette smoking and our lack of knowledge about vaping. When we inhale cigarette smoke, we are not just taking tobacco and nicotine into our lungs but dozens of different chemicals that can damage our lungs and enter our bloodstream. There is also the unmistakable harshness of smoke entering our airways. 

The chemicals in vaping cartridges haven’t been the target of 54 years of public health messaging. We can’t all rattle off what’s inside of them and recite why they may be detrimental to our health. We also don’t get that same harsh assault on our throat and lungs when we inhale a cloud of vapor. It goes down smooth and often tastes like candy.

But if we go back several decades, cigarettes themselves were marketed as physician-tested and endorsed products. It took years — and numerous deaths — for us to learn just how harmful smoking was.

The deadly vaping crisis that has erupted over the past month is unprecedented but not surprising. For years, whispers of vaping-related illnesses such as ‘popcorn lung’ have been circulating.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe that 380 people in the United States are affected by these vaping-induced illnesses. Six people have died, and that count may rise. The CDC believes that these cases are associated with chemical exposure but couldn’t narrow down the cause. Not all of those affected were vaping the same substances — many were using THC, half were using nicotine and a small percent were using CBD products.

There is a possibility that the illnesses could be tied to counterfeit vaping cartridges that are using vitamin E acetate as a thickening agent. But the use of these cartridges can’t be tied back to all the patients.

While traditional cigarettes have been linked to a myriad of illnesses — from cancer to lung diseases like COPD — it can take decades before the health effects of chronic smoking appear. The majority of vaping-related illnesses appear to be affecting very young, healthy individuals — many who may have only been vaping for a few years at most. 

And while the illnesses experienced from cigarette smoking are mostly chronic and appear gradually over time, these vaping-related illnesses seem to appear devastatingly quick. Patients report shortness of breath, chest pain and cough, with symptoms lasting for six days before many sought medical care. 

Many were admitted to intensive care units and needed breathing support — like a ventilator. The illness appears to be a collection of pneumonias, acute respiratory distress syndrome and alveolar hemorrhage.

In response to the outbreak of illnesses, many users are throwing out their Juuls and other vaping devices but have found quitting to be difficult. These pods and many vaping liquids contain nicotine, the addictive substance that is associated with cigarettes. The CDC is advising that people quit vaping until they have isolated the cause behind the illness. 

Could this crisis have been avoided by stricter regulation and better public health messaging around vaping? Or is it a case of chemical contamination in the cartridge supply chain?

These are questions that may take months or years to answer. It’s clear that we should be weary of anything that claims to be a safer alternative without any evidence backing that claim.

Erin Matthews/ Opinions Editor

Graphic: Ana Cristina Camacho/ News Editor

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