As ongoing efforts to identify the particular cause of a series of vaping-related illnesses persist, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a warning to discontinue the use of modified devices and vaping liquids purchased on the street, but concern among student users seems to be minimal.
Over the course of the summer, a series of illnesses related to the use of vaping devices began to appear across the country, baffling even the highest health institutions. So far, nearly 380 related cases of lung conditions have been identified, with seven of the cases proving fatal. The majority of patients have been college-age, and previously in good health. The recorded cases of illnesses have included the onset of symptoms such as coughing and shortness of breath, with a quick deterioration in health leading to hospitalization. Many of the patients found themselves in intensive care, with some requiring the use of a respirator to maintain their breathing function.
This outbreak comes amidst nationwide efforts to combat nicotine addiction related to the increased popularity of vaping. In April of this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began an investigation into the marketing practices of Juul, citing concerns that the company had been intentionally targeting their advertising towards adolescents, a group particularly vulnerable to developing addictions. Just last week, the Trump administration announced a plan to ban flavored e-cigarettes nationally, on the basis that the flavored products are especially enticing to teen populations. In announcing the proposal, President Trump stated, “We can’t allow people to get sick. And we can’t have our kids be so affected.” Despite the typically divisive attitudes towards the current administration, there seems to be bipartisan support in combating the health risks associated with vaping.
This trend towards heavier regulations on the e-cigarette industry has also been seen on state and local levels. In mid-July, the Ohio state legislature passed a law raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products, including vaping devices, to 21 years of age, becoming the 18th state to do so. Many universities have also begun efforts to reduce the use of nicotine and tobacco products on their campuses, including Case Western Reserve University, which instituted a tobacco-free policy in 2017.
Despite the ban on tobacco products on campus, the nature of vaping devices makes it difficult to crack down on usage. Many of them are small, discreet and are designed in a way to limit the amount of visible emissions. Furthermore, consuming nicotine presents few, if any, visible signs of use, making it difficult to definitively determine whether a student has been using banned products without directly witnessing use.
Because of this, student use of vaping devices has seemed to be relatively undeterred. When one student was asked about how campus policy affected their use of a vape, they indicated it was of minimal concern, stating “I pretty much do it anywhere as long as I can’t be seen.”
Concern over the series of illnesses among users seems minimal as well. Students said it feels like “so many things are so dangerous for you to use at this point,” and that there was no way to avoid every possible source of harm. They also commented that they felt reassured by the CDC’s specific investigations into products purchased from non-retail sources, as many who use vaping devices gain access not through the normal avenues, but through older friends who can buy the products legally for them.
Despite the wide disconnect in levels of concern between health officials and users, the current health crisis seems to indicate that the e-cigarette industry may be on a path parallel to that of the traditional tobacco industry. As vaping products have only been on the market for a short amount of time, the long-term effects of usage have not been able to be observed. The severity of the recent outbreak of related illnesses may indicate that this is a turning point for the medical field in gaining a solid understanding of the associated risks of vaping. At this point, the potential health concerns leave both the industry and the public questioning what the future of e-cigarettes will entail.