Since its inception, vaping has been a point of contention. Some would argue that the vaporized e-cigarettes are a much safer alternative to smoking, while others argue that the hot new product is too appealing to teens. Proponents on both sides have been flakey on the science and safety of vaping. Until now.
Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) activated its Emergency Operations Center to investigate hundreds of severe lung illnesses and several deaths related to vaping. At the time of publishing, there were at least 11 confirmed fatalities caused by vaping. Over 500 people have developed a new and devastating lung disease resembling pneumonia.
Historically, the CDC’s Emergency Operations Center has been reserved for major health emergencies, including major hurricanes, the recent Zika virus outbreak, and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Some states – including California – have warned people to stop vaping immediately.
We are seeing something that we have not seen before,” said California Department of Public Health’s Dr. Charity Dean. “There are numerous unknown factors at this time, and due to the uncertainty of the exact cause, it is our recommendation that consumers refrain from vaping until the investigation has concluded.”
Over the past few months, hundreds of people have been hospitalized with a new and dangerous lung disease linked to vaping. Victims have used products that are flavored and unflavored containing both nicotine and THC. The indication is that the delivery system (vaping) is to blame, NOT the contents.
People are getting sick and some are dying as a result of vaping,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom this week. Californians are encouraged to stop vaping until health officials fully understand what’s causing this public health crisis.”
Although the vaping deaths were originally isolated to California, deaths have recently been reported in Georgia and Florida indicating a nation-wide health crisis. Kansas has reported 2 fatalities so far.
State and federal governments have increased pressure to ban flavored vape products, which are associated with teen use. Massachusetts recently imposed a ban on all vaping products, while nations including Israel and India have also halted the sale of certain vape products. Both the CDC and the FDA have recommended that consumers avoid the use of any and all vaping products.
[The] CDC has made it a priority to find out what is causing this outbreak of e-cigarette or vaping-related injuries and deaths,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield in a statement.
There have been nearly 50 lawsuits regarding vaping-related injury, and it seems that many more are to follow. Joseph VanZandt, a lawyer with the firm of Beasley Allen, represents hundreds of clients who have been injured by vaping.
We fully expect that there will be hundreds if not thousands of individual cases filed,” he said.
The primary defendant in these cases has been Juul Laboratories, which controls about 75% of the U.S. market. Other defendants include Altria Group Inc, the parent company of Marlboro and a minority stakeholder in Juul. CEO Kevin Burns abruptly stepped down as the potential for a nationwide ban increased. Tobacco giant Phillip Morris abandoned a $200 billion merger with Altria, attempting to distance itself from the vaping industry.
Like other e-cigarette companies, Juul has been accused of aggressively marketing to minors. Now, it seems that the company may be killing its consumer base.
Although e-cigarettes originally seemed like an anti-smoking breakthrough, there have been some unintended consequences. As the market grew, so did the user base. And vaping found a new and profitable demographic in young people – especially teens.
The U.S. Surgeon General has described teen use of e-cigarettes as an “epidemic” and the CDC estimates that more than 1 in 5 middle and high school teens use them. For the past few years, regulators have been trying to stop manufacturers from marketing them to children, but to little avail. While there have been some promising new laws, the progress has been slow.
Companies often use sweet, fruity flavors to make their products more attractive, and the use of cartoon characters to sell the products is common. The e-cig industry has ballooned over the past several years and is exempt from the regulations imposed on tobacco products. And Juul has been the biggest beneficiary of the market boom.
E-Cig Profits Soar
A 2018 study published in JAMA showed that the e-cigarette industry has grown exponentially in just a few short years. In 2011, global spending on vape products was around $2 billion. In 2018, that number is closer to $15 billion – and expected to grow substantially in 2019.
Juul, which spun off from PAX Labs in 2017, is a San Francisco-based company. Their product has been on the market since June of 2015 and is now the most popular e-cigarette in the U.S. with a market share of nearly 75%. In late 2018, Juul sold 35% of its stake to Marlboro manufacturer Altria at a valuation of $38 billion. Their staff has grown from 200 to 2,000 employees in the last year, and they’ve invested heavily in their hometown of San Francisco.
Just this summer, Juul closed on a 29-floor building in the downtown area worth an estimated $400 million. It was the largest real estate purchase in history by a San Francisco company that was not in the real estate business.
The Science Behind E-Cigarettes
While vaporized nicotine avoids many of the cancer-causing chemicals found in conventional tobacco products, the long-term effects have not been studied. E-cigarettes have been shown to help adults quit smoking, but a growing body of evidence suggests that e-cigarettes may be plenty harmful on their own.
One study found that the nicotine-infused liquids used in e-cigarettes becomes much more toxic when vaporized, adversely affecting our immune system’s ability to clear our lungs and prevent harmful chemical buildups. Many studies evaluate the liquid before it’s vaporized, leading to different results.
Another study found that mice exposed to e-cigarette vapor experienced DNA damage in their lungs, bladder, and heart, raising the risk of developing heart disease and cancer. Human lung and bladder cells that were exposed to an equivalent of ten years showed the same damage, suggesting that long-term exposure to e-cigarettes could directly contribute to the two leading causes of death in the U.S.
According to a recent article published in Science News magazine, significant amounts of cancer-causing chemicals such as formaldehyde are absorbed by the respiratory tract during a typical vaping session, underscoring the potential health risks posed by vaping.
A recent study from Birmingham University indicates that users could be putting themselves at risk for developing lung disease. That’s because the nicotine-infused liquids used in e-cigarettes become much more toxic when vaporized, adversely affecting our immune system’s ability to clear our lungs and prevent harmful chemical buildups.
Since most of the research on e-cigarette safety has looked at chemicals in fluids before they vaporize, some experts feel that the health risks associated with regular vaping may have been underestimated.
A study carried out at the New York University School of Medicine has shown that when compared to mice that breathed filtered air, mice exposed to e-cigarette vapor experienced DNA damage in their lungs, bladder, and heart – which raises their risk of developing cancer and heart disease.
What’s more, exposure to e-cigarette vapor was seen to block repair processes that normally keep DNA intact and healthy. Similar effects were also seen in cultured human lung and bladder cells that had been exposed to e-cigarette vapor for the equivalent of ten years.
The Consequences of Vaping
But the new lung disease caused by vaping is very real… and very dangerous. The symptoms of the new scourge tend to worsen over time and include coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pains, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Doctors have recommended that anyone who suffer breathing problems like dry cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain after vaping should seek medical attention immediately.
Although health professionals suspect that the deadly affliction is caused by a chemical exposure in the lungs, they still haven’t confirmed the cause. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Patients suffer from shortness of breath, coughing and chest pain, and some also experience gastrointestinal issues, fever and weight loss. Most chest X-rays or CT scans show hazy, white opaque areas in the lungs, but there’s typically no infection. Almost all patients are hospitalized, and many require help breathing.”
Until now, vaping had been seen as the best way to help with smoking cessation. Opponents worried that teen vaping would eventually lead to cigarette use, but very few had genuine concerns about product safety. But the curtain has been lifted.
Some would blame THC, a cannabinoid often used in vape products, but that theory has already been debunked. Many of the victims of this new disease were not using THC products. Even nicotine, which has been thoroughly villainized, is not to blame. What you smoke is not the problem; something is wrong with your vape pen.
As we’ve seen countless times before, the bottom line is more important than human lives. These products have been rushed onto our shelves with very little oversight. Like big tobacco before them, the e-cigarette industry has enjoyed extremely relaxed regulation while generating enormous profits. Juul is worth over $100 billion, but already we’re beginning to see the body count escalate.
Vaping has become an international phenomenon, exploding by 7-fold in just the last year. But the greed of these companies and the apathy of our regulatory bodies has led to a national health crisis that may get worse before it gets better.
As more and more children take up the habit and people continue to die, there’s only one question to ask these companies: what are you smoking?