With the noxious rise of the anti-vaxxers and the deadly scourge of opioid addiction, the last thing Connecticut needs is another public health crisis. But we could have another one on the horizon and, like the knuckleheaded refusal to vaccinate, it could hit children especially hard.
Last week, the state Department of Public Health announced that three more Connecticut residents were hospitalized and treated for a severe lung disease after using so-called electronic cigarettes or vaping products. That brings to five the number of sick who have been treated and released since July. Symptoms include shortness of breath, fever, cough, vomiting, and diarrhea.
The Connecticut incidents are part of a larger national trend. Researchers at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are looking into other such cases in 33 states and one territory. At least five have resulted in death.
In a news release, the DPH urged vapers to stop until the multi-state investigation is completed. DPH said teen vaping has spiked in the state and nationally, prompting the CDC to urge physicians to be on the lookout for respiratory issues connected to vaping, which does not produce tobacco smoke, but rather an aerosol resembling water vapor consisting of fine particles. The particles themselves contain varying amounts of toxic chemicals linked to cancer as well as respiratory and heart diseases.
Earlier this year, Gov. Ned Lamont wisely signed into law a bill that raises the minimum age for buying tobacco and e-cigarettes to 21. Connecticut joins 18 states and at least 480 localities that, as of last month, have done the same. This will surely help, though it is hardly a solution.
The most alarming rise in use has been among school children. Last year, as part of my day job, I sat in on a talk by a school resource officer at a small middle/high school in the Berkshires. What she told the board of health in Sheffield, Mass., was troubling.
The SRO characterized vaping as an “epidemic” in her school. The officer, who is also a cop and a nurse, observed that, unlike certain niche drugs, vaping cuts across social lines and “covers the spectrum of artists, scholars, athletes” and occurs “before and after sports, on school buses, athletic buses, at home.”
It’s not hard to catch students smoking in school bathrooms or to detect telltale signs of smoking such as offensive odors on body and hair; the brown stains on teeth and fingers; dropped ashes; holes burned in clothing. Those unpleasant side effects have turned many students away from traditional smoking — so much so that the Marlboro Lights of my youth are no longer viewed as “cool.”
In contrast, furtive e-cigarette use is very difficult to detect. Since it’s a vapor, it dissipates quickly. Aside from the vaping device itself, the only real evidence of use is a fruity odor — mango is the most popular flavor — that could easily be mistaken for deodorant or perfume. And get this — some students are even managing to sneak a vape in class, blowing the vapor into their sleeves.
It goes without saying that recent developments concerning the severe health effects of vaping are bad news for companies such as Juul, which controls 75% of the market. Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, recently acquired a 35% stake in Juul.
That will put one of the largest tobacco companies squarely in the crosshairs of federal investigators once again. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating Juul’s marketing practices that target children. Not be outdone, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong is investigating Juul’s dubious health claims about vaping and the company’s insistence that its product can be used as a smoking cessation device. He also plans to examine if Juul is targeting youths in its marketing.
Suddenly, Altria’s $13 billion investment in Juul doesn’t exactly look like a great idea. If these lung ailments grow more severe and more numerous, and their links to vaping irrefutable, it will lead to a variation of the inevitable question that was posed by government lawyers to Big Tobacco and Purdue Pharma. In the famous words of Sen. Howard Baker during the Watergate investigation: “What did Juul know and when did they know it?”
When confronted, Juul’s response (“We’re trying to fight youth vaping, not promote it”) was less than convincing. The company’s incentives are clearly perverse. We know the drill. Executives are concerned about youth vaping only to the extent that it might prompt a costly lawsuit and send its stock price plummeting.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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