Vaping-related illness takes eight lives

Bridge to Wellness (BTW) is a peer led group at Brandeis for educating and empowering students to prioritize well-being and practice healthy decision making around substance abuse, stress management, nutrition, fitness, and mental health. BTW works to strengthen access and connections between students and campus resources. Through active community involvement, BTW hopes to improve the student experience at Brandeis for all. 

The recent wave of vaping-related illness is suspected to have taken the life of yet

another person. According to USA Today, this marks the eighth individual to have died due to vaping-related lung disease. Because e-cigarette technology is so new, the relationship between the products and health is not fully understood. This setback unfortunately leaves these investigations in only the early stages of research and analysis.

The 530 confirmed and probable cases of vaping-related lung disease are disturbingly

comparable to cases involving toxic inhalation pneumonitis normally seen in occupational or

community environments where fires, accidents or other high levels of exposure to metals or

chemicals occur. Data collected from these cases shows a pattern of coughing, severe breathing difficulties, nausea, weight loss, vomiting and diarrhea over a series of days. Aside from symptoms, data has also pinpointed that the majority of patients suffering from respiratory distress are young men. As of now, no specific product or substance has been identified as the cause of such illnesses, but cartridge hacking or mixing liquid agents might result in contaminants and the production of new toxic agents that can possibly cause lung inflammation and scarring. 

A deeper investigation must be conducted in order to study the results of such practices, but e-cigarette fluids are already shown to carry six categories of potentially toxic compounds. Two flavor substances have also demonstrated the ability to disrupt gene expression pathways of critical cell processes necessary for bronchial epithelial cells in humans. 

While data on how patients use the devices, illicit e-cigarette usage (authorities are analyzing what other substances reside in black market cartridges) and patient pre-existing illnesses must be collected to target the culprit, it is understood that patients are seeing lung illnesses after vaping THC, nicotine or a combination of both.

Since vaping products have been released, millions of adults decided to switch their nicotine source to vaping devices as a potentially safer substitute to cigarettes. However, with flavored products at the forefront of the market, it comes as no surprise that adolescents were the primary target audience for marketing. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vape ads have reached over 18 million middle and high school students. Not surprisingly, trends developed through social media challenges and the popularity of the Juul, a specific brand of vape, became widespread among youth. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse collected data showing that 25 percent of high school seniors were using some form of e-cigarettes as of 2018. This data is particularly alarming because nicotine is more destructive for the adolescent brain. According to Yale Medicine, the developing brain is more receptive to a primitive mechanism known as the “reward system,” and nicotine plays into this mechanism to make it much more difficult to resist, and much easier to get addicted.

Despite being invented in 2003, it was not until 2010 that vaping took off as a popular trend. Its popularity only grew as flavors were introduced and vape mods became more complex. According to the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) survey, the percent of Brandeis undergraduates who reported e-cigarette use in the last 30 days rose from 3.4 percent in 2016 to 9.0 percent in 2018.

While many patients will recover from the vaping-related illness that brought them to the hospital, the lifelong health conditions are still unknown. Because these devices are so new, it seems the consequences will remain unknown to the public until they happen to real people or until more intensive studies take place. The claim that e-cigarettes are a safer alternative spread and stuck due to the lack of research available about the short and long-term effects of vaping and the limited knowledge on the chemicals in the devices. 

Because the $2.6 billion e-cigarette market was able to walk the thin line between full-disclosure and a complete lack of information, individuals are now suing e-cigarette companies for false information on the dangers of vaping. Since the emergence of these cases, public agencies have begun taking steps to learn more about e-cigarette products and are pushing back against the reckless actions by the e-cigarette companies. 

The enforcement arm of the Food and Drug Administration has begun intensive research to support the investigation headed by the CDC. Their work involves close communication with state and local health officials to gain comprehensive facts on the cases. With assistance from state public health officials, the FDA is testing a number of products for poisons, heavy metals, cutting agents, pesticides, opioids, toxins and other chemicals. This information will hopefully allude to which products are high risk for causing the vaping epidemic. 

In conjunction with the investigation, the Trump administration announced that e-cigarette companies will be forced to remove flavored vaping products from the market in efforts to protect the youth population. The FDA is in the process of completing a policy to eliminate much of the non-tobacco flavored e-cigarettes. These steps intend to take a firm stance against the distressing illness and aim to support the affected communities across the country.

On Tuesday, Sept. 24, Governor Baker declared a four-month ban on all vaping products in Massachusetts. While this is a bold move to protect public health, nicotine and THC are addictive and some vape users may find it hard to go without. There are many resources out there to support you, like www.mylifemyquit.com, which offers free quit coaching for young adults via text or phone calls. 

Brandeis students can make an appointment at the Health Center by calling (781)-736-3677 to discuss nicotine cessation medications and other options. Students can also access the Counseling Center at (781) 736-3730 for individual and group support for quitting or cutting back on nicotine and/or cannabis. There is also a local Marijuana Anonymous meeting held weekly on Wednesdays from 8 to 9 p.m. at the First Lutheran Church of Waltham at 6 Eddy Street.

Up until recent weeks, regular users of e-cigarettes could brush aside concerns about

harmful consequences due to ignorance on the matter. Now, potential evidence of deadly toxic inhalation is undeniable, and users, policy makers and public health organizations are taking more direct action on vaping regulations. 

In the words of a Brandeis Legal Studies and HSSP professor, Sarah Curi, “we are in the early stages of understanding it all, and we need science, public health and politics to come together in order to find a solution for this epidemic.”

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