LINCOLN — Nebraska vape store owners on Friday sought to distance their products from a national epidemic of lung diseases and deaths linked to vaping products.

Speaking at a legislative hearing, they pointed the finger at black-market vape cartridges containing THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.

“I want to clarify and address the recent misleading news stories about respiratory illnesses caused by vaping,” said Sarah Linden, president of the Nebraska Vape Vendors Association. “It’s not nicotine vaping that’s causing these illnesses.”

But health advocates said federal health officials have not yet reached any conclusions, other than that all of the reported illnesses occurred in people who use electronic cigarette products.

“The jury’s still out,” said Todd Wyatt, a University of Nebraska Medical Center professor specializing in environmental health and pulmonary diseases.

As of Friday afternoon, there have been 805 lung injury cases in 46 states and one territory, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number includes 12 deaths in 10 states.

There have been five confirmed and four probable cases of vaping-related lung illnesses in Nebraska. The state hasn’t had any vaping-related deaths.

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The illnesses have been unusual because of how rapidly they have affected people, Wyatt said. Patients can go from healthy to intensive care in a matter of days. The first such illness began on March 31, and the number of cases has exploded over the last month.

Wyatt worries more about what kinds of health problems may show up after 20 years or more of vaping. He noted that it took decades for lung cancer rates to rise after cigarette smoking became common.

State Sen. Dan Quick of Grand Island told the Health and Human Services Committee that lawmakers need to do more to protect Nebraska children from vaping.

He pushed through a bill this year that will raise the age for buying and using cigarettes and vaping products containing nicotine to 19, up from 18 currently. The change takes effect Jan. 1.

Quick originally wanted to raise the age to 21 and to ban vaping in workplaces and public places, as smoking is banned now. He said Friday that he is still interested in those changes.

“E-cigarette aerosol is not harmless,” he said, noting that many ingredients in vaping liquids can cause cancer. When vaping, people use electronic devices to turn those liquids into an inhaled vapor. The liquids, also called vape juice, may contain nicotine, flavoring and other additives.

Nick Faustman of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network argued for including e-cigarettes under the state’s indoor smoking ban. He said people should have a right to breathe clean air, free from the particles found in vaping aerosol.

But vape store owner Eric Johnson said researchers have not reached a conclusion about whether vaping poses a danger. He said concerns about vaping need to be put in perspective and argued that vaping is safer than smoking cigarettes and is effective at helping people quit.

“Right now, what we’re seeing in vape shops is a significant drop in sales,” he said. “We’re seeing people go back to smoking because of the headlines that we’re seeing.”

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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