If there’s some good to come from the terrible and still ongoing outbreak of vaping-related illness that has damaged the lungs of so many young people, possibly permanently, and killed at least eight people so far, it is that it has motivated authorities at all levels to step up efforts to reduce electronic cigarette use among kids.
The day after the sixth death related to this mysterious outbreak, the Food and Drug Administration announced it was finalizing plans to pull flavored e-cigarettes, which are favored among teens, from the market. A few days later, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced steps to warn the public about the dangers of vaping, crack down on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and stop the sale of counterfeit devices used to vape marijuana and sold illicitly. Most, but not all, of the 530 people sickened said they used e-cigarettes for marijuana.
Newsom also said he would support a ban on flavored tobacco if the California Legislature passed one. A bill to do just that was unable to gain traction this year, but that was before vapers, most of them under 35, started showing up in hospitals barely able to breathe.
Now it’s Los Angeles’ turn to take action.
On Wednesday, Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer released a report calling for a citywide ban on kid-friendly e-cigarette flavors, such as fruit and candy, and other tobacco products that appeal to kids who cannot legally buy the products. The report wasn’t precipitated by the current outbreak of acute lung illness; the City Council requested it back in April. But its arrival was timely. New data released the same day revealed a 27.5% year-over-year increase in the number of middle and high school students who say they regularly use e-cigarettes. Alarmingly, one-fourth of all 12th-graders who participated in the survey by University of Michigan researchers reported using e-cigarettes, or vaping, within the previous month.
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Even though the FDA says it intends to bar the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in every state, local bans still make sense. For one thing, the feds can’t move quickly even when they’re trying to. It could be months before the agency acts, and it’s hard to know today what the final regulations will look like. Local governments can move faster. Furthermore, local bans can go further by extending to menthol flavoring, which is popular with teen vapers and cigarette smokers, and to other tobacco products, such as flavored cigarillos.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is set to vote Sept. 24 on a proposal to ban the sale of menthol and other flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, in stores in the unincorporated county areas. If both the county and city adopt the bans — and they should — it would create a meaningful geographic bulwark against minors’ access to vaping products.
Authorities still haven’t identified the root cause of the pulmonary illness, though they suspect it may have to do with oils used in liquids that are heated up by the e-cigarette devices and inhaled. Inhaling oil is extremely damaging to lungs. Authorities have found traces of vitamin E acetate in samples of e-cigarette devices modified for THC or cannabis used by the people sickened. Oil has also been found in samples of the nicotine liquid used in commercial e-cigarettes, along with other toxic chemicals.
In the end, the cause of this serious lung illness may be traced to the marijuana-modified devices, but that doesn’t mean using retail e-cigarettes isn’t risky. Nicotine is a highly addictive drug that affects the heart. There’s also a fear that once hooked on nicotine, vapers might expand their use to combustible tobacco products.
One thing health officials know for certain is that the illness is afflicting mostly young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two-thirds of the identified cases involved people between 18 and 35 years old, and about 16% of the victims were younger than 18. And they also know flavors induce young users to take their fateful first puff.