California health officials issued a warning Tuesday that people stop vaping immediately, joining a growing chorus of health experts advising caution around e-cigarette use following recent reports of severe lung illnesses linked to the practice.
In recent months, hundreds of people have been hospitalized across the nation with serious lung conditions that are suspected to be linked to vaping, both of nicotine and THC. In California, there have been two deaths due to the illnesses as well as 90 people who have been hospitalized, officials say.
“We are seeing something that we have not seen before,” said Dr. Charity Dean, California’s acting public health officer, in a statement. “There are numerous unknown factors at this time, and due to the uncertainty of the exact cause, it is our recommendation that consumers refrain from vaping until the investigation has concluded.”
E-cigarettes are loaded with a liquid cartridge — typically containing THC or nicotine — that when heated turns into a vapor that the user then inhales. The recent outbreak, however, suggests that something in the liquid, such as oil or another substance mixed in, has been also entering people’s lungs and causing damage, experts say.
“People are getting sick and some are dying as a result of vaping,” Gov. Newsom said in a statement Tuesday. “Californians are encouraged to stop vaping until health officials fully understand what’s causing this public health crisis.”
For the past several weeks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been investigating a collection of severe symptoms, including chest pain, shortness of breath and vomiting, associated with e-cigarettes. They say they are unsure of the exact cause of the problems, but have also urged people to stop vaping.
As of Friday, there have been 530 cases of lung injury nationwide as well as seven deaths, one of which was in Los Angeles County. Two-thirds of the cases were in people between the ages of 18 and 35.
So far, no specific devices or chemicals have been linked to the outbreak, officials say. Most people who became sick had vaped with THC, some with a mixture of THC and nicotine and a smaller number with only nicotine.
Dr. James Sargent, a pediatrics professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, said that cases of people becoming ill after vaping began popping up in the scientific literature at least five years ago. But there weren’t enough cases or awareness among physicians to form a pattern until recently, he said.
Now doctors who notice these symptoms will know to ask about a child’s history with e-cigarettes, he said. But Sargent expressed concern about how little vaping products are regulated.
“We have a massive experiment going on with THC and e-cigarettes ... nobody is ensuring that when the vape shops put nicotine in, that it’s the concentration they say it is,” he said. “The whole vaping thing is like the Wild West.”
Governments across the nation have been trying to take action against e-cigarettes.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker called for a four-month ban on all sales of vaping products in the state on Tuesday. Earlier this month, Michigan became the first state in the nation to ban flavored e-cigarettes. In June, San Francisco became the first major city to ban the sale of any e-cigarette products.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County supervisors considered a ban on flavored e-cigarette products, which experts say can serve as a gateway to nicotine for kids. The board’s discussion of the measure drew hundreds of people, who were loudly chanting outside the board room on Tuesday morning. Signs read “I Vote, I Vape” and “Flavored tobacco is a death trap.”
The board voted to advance the measure and will return for another vote next week.
“This swift action is exactly the type of protections we would like to see,” said American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network L.A. Government Relations Director Primo Castro in a statement. “Make no mistake — the industry shamelessly tries to maximize profits while its customers suffer death and disease, and local taxpayers continue to foot the bill for tobacco-related illnesses.”