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Vaping-related illness and death on the rise

In fall of 2019, vaping made headlines when several deaths were reported due to a lung illness associated with e-cigarettes or vaping products. The deaths generated national attention. Around the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its first analysis of lung injury deaths linked to vaping product use, which revealed 34 deaths had been reported to the CDC as of October 2019.

Since the CDC’s first report was released last year, the number of reported vaping-related deaths has doubled to 64 as of February 2020.

A bottle of e-liquid, or vape juice, leans up against a third-generation vaping device called a MOD, or mechanical modified nicotine delivery system, at The Vapory in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Vaping related illness and deaths are on the rise across the United States. (Photo Illustration by Felicia Hines/Kokopelli)

The CDC coined the term EVALI, which stands for e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury, to describe the illness that doctors discovered was related to vitamin E acetate, an additive sometimes used in vaping cartridges. EVALI has been linked to both regular vaping products containing only nicotine and those containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a chemical commonly found in marijuana.

Many college-aged students have taken up vaping. Victoria Wong, a junior majoring in journalism and media studies at New Mexico State University, is a vaper. “I think college-aged students are attracted to e-cigarettes and vaping because of the age we are at,” Wong said.

“It’s like the mindset of, oh, I’m an adult — I can finally buy this now, and the same goes for alcohol. Or some people solely get it because other people are doing it and it’s like peer pressure,” Wong added.

“As of Feb. 18, 2020, the CDC reported over 2,800 people in the U.S. had been hospitalized for EVALI in all 50 states. The CDC also confirmed 68 deaths in 29 states and the District of Columbia due to EVALI. This represents a 100% rise in the number of vaping-related deaths reported to the CDC since its initial findings were released in October of 2019.”

According to a July 2018 Gallup poll, 20% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 years old said they regularly or occasionally use e-cigarettes, also known as vaping. The report also stated that one in five Americans under the age of 30 vape at least occasionally.

The same poll indicated roughly one-fifth of U.S. adults (22%) under age 30 believe vaping is “very harmful” to one’s health. Estella Guzman, a graduate student majoring in social work at NMSU, was critical of vaping. “I think vaping is gross, unhealthy and a waste of money,” Guzman said.

Last year, Congress passed a bipartisan measure that prohibits retailers from selling any form of tobacco products — including e-cigarettes, cigarettes, cigars and hookah tobacco — to individuals under the age of 21. The legislation was signed into law by President Trump in December 2019 as part of a larger federal appropriations bill.

Previously, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act set the minimum age to purchase tobacco products at 18. The new measure — which begins on page 1492 of a Senate amendment to the H.R. 1865 Appropriations Act — is tied to what is more commonly referred to as Tobacco 21 legislation. The measure amends the Federal, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to include a new subsection, 906(d)(5), which states: “Minimum Age of Sale — It shall be unlawful for any retailer to sell a tobacco product to any person younger than 21 years of age.”

Prior to the passage of the new federal legislation, 19 states had already raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21.

Not everyone agrees with Tobacco 21 legislation, including young people who don’t vape. Guzman, also a member of the NMSU Student Veterans Organization, said: “If you can die for your country at 18, you should also have the choice to smoke or drink.”

Felipe Loza, a senior majoring in journalism and media studies, used to smoke cigarettes but chose to quit. “I stopped because I realized how stupid it was to smoke cigarettes. I wanted to live a longer life because I love myself, and I don’t need to smoke cigarettes to love myself,” Loza said.

Loza indicated he supports the new age requirement. “I’m all for it. They should have done this back in 2000. I wish they would have made the age limit 23 years old. These tobacco companies don’t care about anyone using [their products]. They are winning every day someone dies from lung cancer.”

Edward Acosta, an employee at The Vapory, a vape shop in Las Cruces, sounded less supportive of the new legislation. “It doesn’t make any sense. I understand the drinking age being 21 because you are under the influence, but vaping isn’t the same as drinking alcohol,” Acosta said.

As of Feb. 18, 2020, the CDC reported over 2,800 people in the U.S. had been hospitalized for EVALI in all 50 states. The CDC also confirmed 68 deaths in 29 states and the District of Columbia due to EVALI. This represents a 100% rise in the number of vaping-related deaths reported to the CDC since its initial findings were released in October of 2019.

Elizabeth Mendoza, a nonsmoker, is a sophomore majoring in genetics and biotechnology. “I believe students are attracted to [vaping] because of society, including their peers. Society has made it ‘normal’ for college-aged students to do it regularly and not be aware of the negative effects,” Mendoza said.

According to the New Mexico Department of Health, there have been 24 cases of vaping-related lung disease in the state thus far. These cases occurred in nine counties including Doña Ana County.

Mary Morgan, a field coordinator with the NM Tobacco Use Prevention and Control Program at the NMDOH Southwest Region office in Las Cruces, said vaping is addictive and that product manufacturers are using social media to promote the industry. “Younger people are attracted to e-cigarettes or vaping because of the addictive drug nicotine and candy flavor. The industry is also taking advantage of social media influencers,” Morgan said.

Back in June 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to four vaping product companies because they did not include the mandatory nicotine warning statement when they utilized paid social media influencers on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and other sites to promote products containing nicotine.

For information or resources regarding tobacco cessation, contact the NMSU Aggie Health and Wellness Center or the New Mexico Department of Health.

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