The wife and daughter of a Nebraska man whose May death now is linked to vaping are warning those still using the products.
“The message is, ‘Don’t do this until we know more,’ ” said Kathleen Fimple of Omaha.
John Steffen, Fimple’s husband of nearly 37 years, died May 10 after being hospitalized for what the family believed was pneumonia. His death certificate, Fimple said, listed the cause of death as acute respiratory failure, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder as a contributor.
State health officials this week reported Nebraska’s first death related to severe lung disease associated with the use of e-cigarettes, or vaping. Fimple said officials confirmed to the family that the death was her husband’s. Twelve other such deaths have been reported nationwide, in 10 other states.
The family was well aware of Steffen’s COPD. The 68-year-old started smoking in the 1960s at a time when it was considered cool, said daughter Dulcia Steffen, also of Omaha.
Fimple said her husband quit smoking around 2000 and later started again. When e-cigarettes came out, he decided to try them. “Initially, he was thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll quit,’ ” she said. “I also think he believed this was better for him, even if he didn’t quit. This was better (for his health) than cigarettes.”
Dr. Tom Safranek, Nebraska’s state epidemiologist, said health officials strongly encourage smokers to try other methods of quitting. Studies of vaping-related illness and of vaping products remain a “work in progress.”
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Safranek said pneumonia often used as a general term and usually implies an infection.
But what set the case apart, he said, was the “ground glass appearance” in lung imaging, which is part of the definition the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has established for the vaping-related illness.
Investigators also looked for but did not find infectious agents, another deciding factor, he said.
Vaping-related lung injuries weren’t reported and tracked by public health agencies until an outbreak in Wisconsin and Illinois in August. Once the problem was recognized, states stepped up surveillance and discovered not only current cases but also others, such as Steffen’s, that occurred before the August outbreak.
As of Friday, 805 lung injury cases had been reported nationwide in 46 states and one U.S. territory. Many of those cases have been reported in young men. Most reported using vaping products containing THC, the high-inducing compound in marijuana, although some reported using only nicotine-containing compounds.
Fimple said she and her daughter want people to know that the illness doesn’t just strike young men.
She and Dulcia Steffen stressed that John Steffen, a retired land surveyor, purchased only sealed, branded vaping products from big-name retail stores, never the illegally refilled packages often mentioned in connection with vaping-related illness.
“He would have never used THC and, honestly, wouldn’t know where to go to get one,” Dulcia Steffen said.
While slowed in recent years by his lung condition, John Steffen enjoyed traveling, hunting, fishing, hiking and camping and had served as a scoutmaster with a Boy Scout troop in Lincoln for youths with developmental disabilities. For years, he volunteered with Special Journeys, a company that provides travel opportunities for people with special needs. He also is survived by sons Jeremy and Joshua, both of Omaha.
His wife and daughter advised those using e-cigarettes to quit smoking to try something else, particularly until more is known about vaping.
The CDC has recommended that the public consider not using e-cigarettes or vaping products, particularly those containing THC, during their investigation. Youths, young adults and pregnant women should not use them.
Fimple said she’d like to see a temporary ban until more is known. She acknowledged that a ban is unlikely, given that tobacco products are legal. But vaping materials should carry health warnings, as cigarettes and alcohol do.
Some steps are being taken to address what types of products are available and where they can be used.
The Trump administration last month announced plans to ban flavored e-cigarettes. Grand Island, Nebraska, is among a number of local and state governments that now ban vaping, as well as smoking, in public places. Kearney’s mayor recently ordered city staff to study whether to enact a similar ban there.
Said Dulcia Steffen, “I want to get the message out to people that these things are not as safe as we thought they were.”
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