Unregulated vaping spawns new teenage nicotine addicts. And now adult vapers are dying.


When e-cigarettes were introduced a decade ago, the battery-operated nicotine inhalers that don't burn tobacco were seen as a means of helping smokers quit.

This premise remained unproven, even as vaping devices started to flood the American market. The effect of long-term use also remains unknown. Despite authority granted by Congress in 2009, the Obama administration didn't extend Food and Drug Administration oversight to electronic cigarettes until 2016, and the Trump administration gave vaping device manufacturers until 2022 to comply.

Meanwhile, popular Juul devices were enthusiastically embraced by young people, triggering a vaping epidemic that spawned a new generation of teenage nicotine addicts. E-cigarette use among high school students increased 78% from 2017 to 2018.

As the regulatory vacuum persisted, a Wild West culture emerged rife with black-market or unlicensed "pop-up shop" sales of Chinese-made vape pens and marijuana ingredients such as cannabidiol, or CBD, and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC - the high-inducing chemical in cannabis - all breeding the risk of toxic contaminants.

And then, suddenly, lung illnesses emerged in late July. There have since been at least 215 possible cases of people using e-cigarettes and falling seriously ill, unable to breath and suffering vomiting and fever. The Washington Post reported that the number of cases could be as high as 354 across 29 states.

HHS, FDA, CDC: Vaping oversight is a top concern

Two people have died - one was hospitalized in Illinois after vaping and another in Oregon who fell ill after using an e-cigarette containing marijuana oil from a legal dispensary. Investigators are struggling to find a pattern, although THC could be a common factor. On Thursday, New York state health officials said they were focusing on an oil derived from vitamin E acetate.

A Trump administration, averse to regulating industry, now faces the challenge of a new and mysterious respiratory ailment related to the use of a largely unregulated product.

As it stands, a long overdue federal analysis of possible health risks from vaping would focus on legal use, rather than the effects of vaping THC, still banned under U.S. law, though cannabis is legal for recreational or medicinal use in 33 states.

This baffling health crisis is the kind of chilling consequence that can flow from shallow government oversight. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was slow to inform the public about the risks - it finally issued a warning last Friday - and the agency has yet to establish a database where state medical authorities can share and compare new data.

The FDA is rightly working to understand the health risks of marijuana extracts and seeking comment from the public. But it needs more oversight power to crack down when contaminants find their way into the vaping craze.

The good news is that a federal judge has ordered no more delays in the FDA reviewing the efficacy and safety of e-cigarettes. It's to begin next May. Finally, the nation will have a baseline of knowledge for understanding whether the devices do more harm than good, and what regulatory controls might be necessary.

In the meantime, vapers beware.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Unregulated vaping spawns new nicotine addicts. Now vapers are dying.


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