As I write this, the statistics on vaping are getting ugly. New Jersey has 20 confirmed cases of vaping-related illness and one death and officials are investigating several dozen suspected cases. The sick range from kids in middle school to adults in middle age. Of both confirmed and suspected cases, the number of males (50) is more than double the females (20). Statistics aside, the situation is fuzzy and these numbers may only be scratching the surface of the problem.
If there is one thing that has been a little startling, it’s the apparent speed with which these illnesses seem to have sprung up from coast to coast. I say that because e-cigarettes and vaping have been around for a few years while the emergence of these illnesses appears to be relatively recent and quick. This may just be a perception on my part or these illnesses may in fact be a relatively recent thing. Either way, things are serious.
If you’re not familiar with e-cigarettes, they are small electronic devices that create an aerosol by heating liquids in “pods” or canisters. These e-cigarettes or vaping devices generally contain nicotine along with various other chemicals that are all part of making the aerosol. Once heated (i.e. vaporized), a user inhales the aerosol in the same way a smoker might inhale a regular cigarette. In addition to nicotine, these devices can also be used with THC (the chemical responsible for marijuana’s “high”), via cannabis-infused oils.
When vaping or e-cigarettes first came on the scene, they were touted by manufacturers as a way to help people quit smoking by serving as an alternative to regular cigarettes. The idea was that people could control the amount of nicotine they were ingesting while at the same time avoiding the array of other substances in regular cigarettes responsible for various diseases, especially cancer. Over time, vaping became a thing, so much so that we now have flavors such as cherry, cinnamon, and citrus in much the same way that coffee comes in hazelnut or French vanilla.
As for being a “step-down” alternative to regular smokes, maybe it has worked for some. We simply don’t know enough from a medical standpoint and until we do, we need to hit the brakes. That’s why Governor Murphy’s Executive Order 84 empaneling an emergency task force was a good first step as it led to a report with several possible next steps.
Some of the measures suggested by the task force include a ban of flavored vaping products, increasing penalties on unauthorized sales to people under 21 years of age with stepped-up enforcement, restricting online sales with limited exceptions, prohibiting advertising and sale of products intended to conceal or disguise vaping devices and/or prohibiting sales to those under 21, beefing up point-of-sale practices such as securing vaping devices and disseminating information to consumers, and regulating and/or limiting the retailers who can sell vaping devices and products. These are good first steps.
We can debate free markets and economic impacts all we like, but profit motive and human nature being what they are, in the absence of regulation, we’ll continue to have companies looking for the quickest and cheapest ways to make money off of vaping and to heck with the health consequences. What we won’t have are companies putting in the time and expense necessary to test the substances they use to find out what happens when they’re heated and inhaled into our lungs.
We have a crisis on our hands because our lungs were never meant to be coated with oils and goodness-knows-what-else these companies end up aerosolizing.
The ironies here are thick. According to the New Jersey Tobacco Survey, cigarette use among high school-age males dropped from 10.3 percent in 2012, down to 3.5 percent in 2018. That’s progress. Yet we now find ourselves facing a fast-moving, ill-defined health crisis from e-cigarettes and vaping so we’ve basically gone backwards.
But perhaps the greatest irony is that Juul and all the Juul-wannabes out there get to roll the dice with people’s health in the name of vaping or capitalism, yet we require drug companies to spend years and many millions of dollars getting FDA approval for asthma inhalers.