An outbreak of severe lung illness related to vaping has affected more than 450 people and killed five in the United States in the past few weeks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised people to avoid all e-cigarette products while it investigates. Symptoms for many of the victims quickly escalated from coughing and shortness of breath to a life-threatening condition known as acute respiratory distress syndrome.
The cause of the illness is unknown, but there’s evidence to suggest it’s connected to vaping THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, that may have been purchased on the street or modified by users.
E-cigarettes are small devices that heat liquid into vapor that is then inhaled. They’re classified as tobacco products because most contain nicotine. While they have been available for about a decade, e-cigarettes exploded in popularity with the release of more discreet handheld vaporizers.
Why there’s debate:
The recent spate of serious illnesses linked to vaping has highlighted how little is known about what’s in the products and the potential effects of long-term use. E-cigarettes can contain ultrafine particles, harmful chemicals and heavy metals. Beyond the risk that these ingredients may result in an acute illness, the lasting effects of regular use are largely unknown.
Among the most vocal anti-vaping campaigners are survivors of the recent outbreak. “It’s going to attack your lungs,” an 18-year-old patient from Illinois warned.
Vaping products are marketed as antismoking tools, but there’s concern they may cause users to develop a nicotine addiction that ultimately drives them to cigarettes. Though selling e-cigarettes to minors is prohibited in the U.S., e-cigarette manufacturers have also been accused of using marketing tactics and creating candy-like flavors to appeal to teenagers. Tobacco use among youths had reduced dramatically in decent decades, but the introduction of e-cigarettes has “erased” that decline, and the Food and Drug Administration said in 2018 that vaping among teens had reached “epidemic” levels.
Vaping advocates say the recent outbreak of illness is caused by black-market “street vapes” containing THC, not store-bought tobacco products. When purchased from a reliable seller, e-cigarettes have tremendous value as an antismoking aid, they argue. One study showed them to be twice as effective at helping people give up cigarettes as other products like nicotine patches and gums. The governments of Canada and the United Kingdom even formally recommend vaping for adults addicted to smoking.