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Let’s get something straight about the panic over vaping and lung health

Published Aug 30th, 2019 1:22PM EDT
vape lung disease
Image: Lee Jones/Shutterstock

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Vaping has been taking over headlines in recent weeks, and for all the worst reasons. The smoking alternative has been linked to lung issues in dozens of hospitalized patients and health officials are investigating what may be hundreds of related cases. Now, in the state where these cases began to gain national attention, Wisconsin, health officials in Milwaukee are urging everyone to stop vaping entirely.

It’s all pretty scary, at least on the surface, and if you’ve kicked a smoking habit in favor of e-cigarettes, you might be second-guessing your decision. However, there’s a serious lack of information available about what kinds of products the affected individuals were using, and it’s leading to what may be an unwarranted panic.

I live in Wisconsin, so I’ve been seeing these headlines since they first began. What I’ve noticed is that an incredibly important piece of information that is almost always reported front-and-center in local headlines related to vaping illness has gotten somewhat lost in the larger national discussion.

In a whopping 89 percent of the cases of vaping-related lung illness being investigated in Wisconsin, the individuals admitted to vaping THC products before becoming ill.

This is incredibly important for a couple of reasons, but the biggest red flag is that THC, as an active ingredient in marijuana-based products, is a controlled substance that is still illegal in Wisconsin. While CBD is allowed in certain medical cases, you can’t legally buy THC products in this state for medical purposes or otherwise, meaning that anyone who is vaping THC in Wisconsin bought it illegally.

The CDC and other health groups investigating the outbreak of vaping-related lung issues have failed to find a link between the people getting sick and any one particular product. That makes sense, especially when looking at the cases in Wisconsin since any THC vape products being used were bought from people who would rather not be identified.

Furthermore, considering THC’s legal status in Wisconsin, the fact that nearly 90 percent of the individuals who became sick admitted to using it suggests that there’s at least a decent possibility (if not a probability) that the other handful of hospitalized patients simply don’t want to out themselves as illegal drug users.

Even as all this is happening, headlines from major national news outlets virtually never mention the THC connection, and if they do, it’s buried hundreds of words deep in an article blaming simply “vaping” as the cause.

This does little but cause confusion, and even though every single one of the cases of vaping-related lung issues from Milwaukee was linked to “dabbing” marijuana-based oils or waxes, the city’s health officials are simply asking people to stop vaping entirely. The Milwaukee health department literally says to stop using “any vape or e-cigarette devices immediately.” I mean… really?

Put simply, the noise around the vaping health debate is, at the point, utterly deafening. There are currently close to 300 cases of possible vaping-related lung disease under investigation across 15 states, most of which outlaw recreational marijuana use, leaving THC products on the street entirely untested and unregulated. We’ll have to wait and see what the state-specific investigations uncover, but it wouldn’t be shocking to learn that most, if not all, reveal that street-bought THC products are to blame.

If you’ve kicked a pack-a-day smoking habit and have been puffing on an e-cigarette to calm your nicotine cravings, it would probably be a good idea to wait until the CDC gets to the bottom of this whole mess before you reverse course.