Vaping Death Toll Rises in the United States
By Gabby Curran
At this point, we are all too familiar with the meme of the stereotypical New York City college student with a trusty vape in their hand. The sight has become so common that we almost don’t notice vapes anymore––that is, until the ripe scent of factory-engineered grape juice suddenly hits us and we notice a giant plume of smoke out of the corner of our eye. For a long time, vapes and e-cigarettes were marketed as healthier alternatives to regular cigarettes, with studies claiming that the products’ lack of tobacco was less detrimental to smokers’ health. Unfortunately, several vape-related deaths that have occurred over the past two months seem to prove otherwise.
The first death linked to vaping took place in Illinois in late August 2019. According to the Illinois Department of Health, the patient––whose age and gender were not disclosed––had “recently vaped and was hospitalized with severe respiratory illness.” Shortly afterwards, on September 4, a second vape-related death was reported in Oregon. Dr. Ann Thomas of the Oregon Health Authority claimed that “[their] investigation has not yielded exactly what it is in [the product smoked by the patient]” but confirmed that the death was related to vaping. One day later, another death was linked to vaping in Indiana. Two more vape-related deaths in Minnesota and California followed. Dr. Jon LaPook, the Chief Medical Correspondent for CBS News, explained that the CDC is “really concerned about unknown substances people are buying on the street… When you think about it, these e-cigarette devices are really like chemistry sets…You’re not entirely sure what these chemicals are, but we are sure of one thing: You are sucking a lot of them.” According to Los Angeles County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis, of the 12 cases of so-called “vaping-associated pulmonary injury” in Los Angeles County alone, two-thirds were teens and young adults. “It is impacting everyone,” said Davis. “This is really crossing the gamut of age group and health.”
JUUL has responded to the vape-related incidents with concern. In an interview with CBS This Morning in late August 2019, JUUL CEO Kevin Burns qualified the vape-related lung disease epidemic as “worrisome…if we contributed to it.” He also confirmed that he and his company are cooperating with the CDC’s investigation into JUUL to get “all of the specifics that [they] can.” Despite the recent drastic rise in vape-related illnesses and injuries, however, Burns stated that “at this point, until we see some facts…yes we do [feel confident to keep selling JUULs].”
The popularity of vapes and e-cigarettes has soared across college campuses over the past few years. In March of this year, Fordham’s own Observer noted that empty JUUL pods “are often found scattered around the residence halls [of Lincoln Center], and students can frequently be seen exhaling vapor on the Outdoor Plaza [and] sometimes even in class.” According to findings from the anthropology department’s Fordham Garbology Project in 2019, 4 pieces of vaping paraphernalia were found in trash cans across Rose Hill in 2017-18; that number rose to 36 in 2019, a 900% increase from previous years. James Curran, a sophomore at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, described a fellow student who “vapes a lot…She once [smoked] three pods in one day [roughly equal to three packs of cigarettes].” Curran, who studied chemistry at McGill and is himself a JUUL user, also gave some background information on the way JUULs and products similar to them work. “Because electronic cigarettes cause a faster diffusion of nicotine across the blood-brain barrier, your tolerance for nicotine builds up much faster than it does with regular cigarettes. You don’t get a buzz anymore after a while and need more and more to get the same feeling.” Nicotine constricts your veins and increases your blood pressure, which is why users feel dizzy after they smoke. “It’s ultimately just a buzz from being starved by oxygen,” explained Curran. An August 2019 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania similarly revealed that even nicotine-free electronic cigarettes cause damage to users’ blood vessels.
As the number of vape-related injuries and deaths increases, it’s unclear what the future holds for vape companies like JUUL. Curran, for his part, feels that the number of vape-related injuries and deaths will not get better “until a large legislation is passed.” Companies have responded to recent events, as in JUUL’s case, but have not taken any decisive action to prevent further incidents from happening. Only time will tell whether or not the recent tragedies involving vaping will cause usage to go up or down.
Original photo courtesy of Sarah Johnson (https://www.blacknote.com/e-juice/)