Mystery lung illness among vapers spreading in Ohio

The number of Ohioans with a mysterious lung illness tied to vaping has continued to grow and health experts expect to see more cases.

As of Friday afternoon, at least 13 Ohio illnesses are under investigation, Dr. Amy Acton, said director of the Ohio Department of Health.

About 450 cases in 33 states have been reported among people who vaped nicotine or THC, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three people have died.

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The spate of illnesses prompted federal, state and local health officials to warn the public not to vape while they work to identify the root cause of the illness. But even before the cases started popping up, public health workers had been sounding the alarm about vaping, particularly among young people.

James Jarvis, president of the Ohio Vapor Trade Association, said the industry is concerned about products that people have tainted or manipulated at home, which is dangerous.

Jarvis doesn’t want to see blanket warnings telling people not to vape. He said vaping has helped many people quit smoking cigarettes and such warnings could scare people back to using traditional cigarettes and their negative health effects.

“A blanket statement like what happened in Michigan is dangerous and irresponsible and detrimental to their health,” Jarvis said.

Michigan banned flavored e-cigarettes, with the exception of tobacco flavored, this week as an emergency rule, following the illnesses. It’s the first state to do so.

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E-cigarettes, which can be used to inhale a flavored nicotine vapor, have grown in popularity in recent years, including among teens. Health experts say nicotine is harmful to developing brains and researchers worry that addicted teens will switch from vaping to smoking.

The e-cigarette use rate among high school-age youths in the U.S. increased by 78 percent from 2017 to 2018. This means that more than 3 million U.S. high school students have used the devices in the past month, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

“The companies are intentionally targeting the next generation to addict them,” Acton said.

Vaping is an important issue for Gov. Mike DeWine and the health department, , Acton said. It’s important that the state raised the minimum age to buy tobacco or vaping products to 21 starting Oct. 17, she said.

DeWine believes e-cigarettes should be regulated by the FDA, Acton said, and is for e-cigarette flavors being regulated like tobacco.

“We’re talking a couple times a day, he’s very much following this,” she said. “So I expect we are going to be coming out with more things to expand the work we are doing.”

Acton said that after they learned of cases in Wisconsin, Ohio sent out a health advisory to physicians and to medical societies so they could report suspected cases. She said the state has also reached out to coroners.

“We think there might be some missing cases that just haven’t been identified,” she said.

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Dan Suffoletto, spokesman for Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County, said even before the alert about the vaping illnesses, he said Public Health’s recommendation is that no one should vape.

It should not be used as a way to stop smoking, he said. Those looking for assistance quitting can call 937-225-5700.

“This investigation further underscores the possible dangers of vaping and vaping should be avoided,” he said.

Todd Yohey, superintendent for Lebanon City Schools, said his district has long warned students about the risks of vaping.

“Vaping does not come without its health risks and consequences,” Yohey said.

Most experts agree the aerosol in e-cigarettes is less harmful than traditional cigarette smoke because it does not contain most of the cancer-causing byproducts of burning tobacco.

But there is virtually no research on the long-term effects of the vaping chemicals, some of which are toxic.

The CDC warned that people who use e-cigarette products should not buy these products off the street, should not modify e-cigarette products or add any substances that are not intended by the manufacturer.

Many of the ill patients reported recent use of THC-containing products, while some reported using both THC- and nicotine-containing products. A smaller group reported using nicotine only.

No evidence of infectious diseases has been identified in these patients, the CDC said, therefore lung illnesses are likely associated with a chemical exposure. However, it is too early to pinpoint a single product or substance common to all cases.

“We are committed to finding out what is making people sick,” Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, said in a statement. “All available information is being carefully analyzed, and these initial findings are helping us narrow the focus of our investigation and get us closer to the answers needed to save lives.”

Associated Press contributed to this story. 

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