By Tyler Bui | Staff Writer, Video by Igor Stepczynski | Broadcast Reporter
As the number of deaths linked to an unknown illness connected to vaping continues to increase, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other departments of health have begun investigating the cause of this life-threatening lung injury.
Twelve deaths have been confirmed by the CDC, sparking the sudden urgency to find out why these products are causing users to become ill.
While researchers are still unsure of the source, it has been confirmed that the use of e-cigarettes has been linked to over 805 cases of lung injury across the U.S. The use of e-cigarettes, or vaping, can span from products such as vape pens, e-hookahs and other smoking alternatives such as the Juul. These products can contain nicotine, cannabinoid oils, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other unknown substances.
Dr. Sara Dolan, associate professor and graduate program director of clinical psychology at Baylor, said the biggest danger of vaping is the uncertainty of what the product actually contains.
“We don’t know— and that’s the danger,” Dolan said. “We don’t know what’s in these products; we don’t know how much of whatever is in the products is there. [It’s] worrisome to me that people don’t know what they’re putting in their body, and my guess is that the people who died had no idea what they were smoking or vaping.”
Given the lack of government regulation for the vaping industry, consumers are only given the information companies choose to give out.
“It’s not actually clear that the dose of nicotine is different in e-cigs versus regular cigarettes. If you look across the literature, there are different conclusions about the amount of nicotine in e-cigarettes,” Dolan said. “Part of the big problem is that it’s not a regulated industry, so people can put whatever they want into these e-cigarettes.”
Dolan said there is also a common misconception that e-cigarettes have fewer health risks than cigarettes.
“One of the big problems with smoking and health risks is really what you’re inhaling,” Dolan said. “They’re maybe not as dangerous as cigarettes, but certainly if you’re inhaling these chemicals that are put into the vaping liquid, you might even be inhaling tiny particles of metal that come from the heating device. That’s where the real risk comes in terms of health effects—it’s what you’re inhaling.”
With all the coverage in the media and access to e-cigarette products being limited, some shops have seen a decrease in sales. Darell Suriff, owner of Create A Cig, a vape and e-cigarette store, said some of his locations have seen a change in sales.
“Sales are down 6 to 25% depending on the location, with all the information in the media,” Suriff said.
He said that one of the problems regarding Juuls is the young age group that has become addicted to the product.
“The problem with teenagers using a Juul is…because it’s a high nicotine device, and they have [started using Juuls], which they shouldn’t,” Suriff said. “Nobody needs that unless you’re a smoker and truly need to get off nicotine.”
Dolan said that not only are the products physically harmful, but they can also affect the brains of young people.
“The earlier someone starts using an addictive substance such as alcohol or nicotine, the more likely they are to become addicted down the road,” Dolan said. “Smoking cigarettes and e-cigarettes can disrupt brain development, especially parts of the frontal lobes. If we’re disrupting the development of those functions, we could be really putting young people at a bigger risk for these problems.”
As researchers work to find the source of these illnesses, lawmakers have begun putting measures in place to either ban or limit the accessibility to these products. Currently, the Trump administration has proposed a ban on flavors, and Michigan and New York have already banned flavored e-cigarette products. Massachusetts was the first state to temporarily ban all sales of vaping products.
Dolan said she hopes the outbreak of this life-threatening illness will prompt users to think before making the decision to use e-cigarettes in the future.
“Know what you’re putting in your body before you start something like that,” Dolan said. “We’re really not going to know what’s in an e-cigarette until we can get more regulation. I think we’re lucky that we have all this media exposure— we’re lucky that the message of the danger can be spread more quickly and effectively. I do think it will give people pause.”