What goes around comes around. And so it is with e-cigarettes. To trace their trajectory from inception to current calamities — including the Connecticut resident who last month became ““the 19th person in the country to die of a vaping-related illness” — look no further than e-cigs’ predecessor: tobacco cigarettes.
Smoking was a socially and medically accepted habit during much of the 20th century. The Journal of the American Medical Association printed advertisements for cigarettes in the 1930s. Camel cigarettes began an eight-year ad campaign in 1946 with this tagline: “More doctors smoke camels than any other cigarette.” And a 1958 Gallup Survey found that only 44% of Americans believed smoking caused cancer despite a British Medical Journal report four years earlier identifying the connection.
It took another decade, but by 1964 the U.S. Surgeon General acknowledged the link between smoking and cancer for the first time. By 1970, cigarette ads were banned from TV and radio when President Richard Nixon signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act.
Since then, the confirmed dangers of second-hand smoke resulted in cigarette bans on airplanes, restaurants, and public buildings. It took more than 50 years since the first warning signs emerged, according to the American Cancer Society, but tobacco cigarettes finally earned their deserved status as a deadly hazard.
Which brings us to e-cigarettes. In 2018, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams addressed “the epidemic of youth e-cigarette use” in an official advisory — an eerie foreshadowing of the current crisis that now comprises 1,080 e-cigarette illnesses nationwide, according to the CDC. Connecticut, as noted earlier, is not exempt.
“There are a total of 25 cases of vaping-related illnesses that have been reported to the Department of Public Health, and a patient in one of the cases is currently hospitalized,” reported CT News Junkie. “The DPH said 13 of the 25 are between the ages of 18 and 34 years old.”
But just as tobacco cigarettes once enjoyed the support of influential voices, e-cigs also have their advocates. Two such backers wrote op-eds appearing side-by-side in the Hartford Courant on Sept. 22.
“With the aid of sloppy news reporting and biased announcements from federal officials, anti-tobacco advocates have successfully deceived the public into thinking that ‘vaping’ is to blame [for the recent outbreak of illnesses],” wrote Michelle Minton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “As if failing to warn consumers about a real health threat wasn’t bad enough, advocates have also used the confusion they helped create to railroad the political process and enact new regulations on the legal e-cigarette market.”
Minton claimed that “most of the cases appear linked to the use of black market cannabis e-liquids, many of which have tested positive for vitamin E acetate, which when inhaled, can damage the lungs.”
In a similar vein, Michael Siegel of Boston University’s Department of Community Health Sciences wrote that California’s recent vape-related deaths involved “illicit THC (marijuana) vaping cartridges that they purchased illegally off the black market.” Thus, “it is inexcusable that health authorities continue to blame the outbreak on electronic cigarettes generally rather than on vaping marijuana specifically.”
Got that? It’s not the e-cigarettes but illegal THC causing all the problems. In fact, adds Dr. Siegel, “Ex-smokers who currently rely on flavored e-cigarettes to stay away from smoking will most likely either return to smoking or purchase illicit vape juice.”
Those poor e-cigarettes, attracting the same undeserved bad publicity that haunted tobacco cigarettes some 50 years ago. And yet…
A Mayo Clinic study released just two weeks ago “analyzed the biopsies from 17 patients who developed a severe lung illness related to vaping — two of whom had died as a result. The biopsies showed no signs that a buildup of oil in the lungs was to blame. Instead, the images resembled those of individuals who had been exposed to toxic chemicals — suggesting that there may be other, as-of-now unidentified contaminants at play.”
“What we see with these vaping cases is a kind of severe chemical injury that I’ve never seen before in a tobacco smoker or a traditional marijuana smoker,” explained surgical pathologist Dr. Brandon Larsen. “But I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.”
We’ve seen this iceberg before. It began with isolated 20th-century studies regarding tobacco cigarettes’ potential dangers; it grew into a full-fledged medical condemnation of smoking by dawn of the 21st century.
Must we wait another 50 years before acknowledging e-cigarettes’ destructive consequences? Let’s hope not. What goes around comes around.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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