More vaping illnesses reported, many involving marijuana (copy)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating more cases of a breathing illness associated with vaping. Officials said many reports involve marijuana vaping.

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

Two weeks after news of the death of an Illinois resident — the first in a wave of hospitalizations for a respiratory illness linked to vaping — the search for what’s causing these illnesses has yielded a suspect.

The epidemiological quest now unfolding suggests one more reason why young people should be especially wary of vaping.

Vitamin E acetate is a chemical derived from vitamin E. The acetate, an oil, shows up harmlessly in supplements taken by millions of Americans and in topical skin treatments.

It’s also now being looked at as a potential link among some 450 cases in which people across the country have been sickened after vaping. (Nebraska now has five confirmed cases and one probable case, according to state health officials.)

What’s the evident link? Investigators for the federal Food and Drug Administration found vitamin E acetate in samples taken from patients who were hospitalized, the Washington Post reported.

FDA officials are looking into whether those patients inhaled the acetate while using e-cigarette products that deliver THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.

One scientist told the Post that when the heated and vaporized vitamin E acetate is inhaled and then cools, “it has now coated the inside of your lungs with that oil.”

There’s a lot more digging to be done on this. Researchers say that the vitamin E acetate theory is preliminary and that they don’t understand exactly what made so many people sick.

The first cases date back to spring. This week, as of midweek, at least six patients had died.

Why did the chemical appear in the vaping devices involved in these cases? How many of these cases involved counterfeit nicotine vaping devices altered to administer THC, versus devices sold at legal marijuana dispensaries?

Many of the people hospitalized were using nicotine vaping devices as well as devices that delivered THC — what role did that play?

Nobody can say with certainty. But the latest developments — this troubling outbreak of a mysterious illness included — underscore the growing awareness of vaping’s health risks.

That goes for devices that deliver nicotine as well as those that deliver THC. The evolving knowledge is especially worrisome given that one segment of the population, teenagers, is highly enamored with e-cigarettes.

The FDA bans the sale of e-cigarettes to youths under 18. Many states have their own age restrictions on purchases (in Nebraska, the legal age will rise to 19 on Jan. 1).

That hasn’t stopped teens from “juuling” or “blowing a fat cloud,” as many put it. Nearly a quarter of teens in a 2018 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse said they had vaped within the past month, double the rate in 2017.

While the marketed purpose of vaping is to wean smokers off traditional cigarettes, with teens the opposite is happening.

A Journal of the American Medical Association study showed in February that teens ages 12 to 17 who vaped were twice as likely to become tobacco cigarette smokers within a year.

E-cigarette manufacturers have marketed their devices with teen-enticing flavors such as mango and crème brûlée.

In some cases in which teens have been hospitalized after vaping, a youth initially had been vaping with nicotine devices, then moved on to vaping THC.

The Chicago Tribune’s Kate Thayer recently spoke with Adam Hergenreder, 18, of Gurnee, hospitalized for an unknown respiratory illness after vaping. “I’m glad I could be an example and show people that (vaping products) … will mess up your lungs,” he told Thayer.

As researchers rush to comprehend how some vaping impairs respiration, those words are strong, sound advice for teens and their parents.

It’s made even stronger by the fact that an 18-year-old gave it from his hospital bed, with tubes affixed to his nostrils to keep him breathing.

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