CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (WDEF) — Thousands of people across the country are getting sick after using e-cigarettes. Dozens have even died.
So is vaping the best way to stop smoking?
Nicole Crumley has been vaping for almost seven years now, after smoking for two decades.
She says she was able to quit with the help of electronic cigarettes.
“I was actually a substance abuse counselor before I got into vaping, and I saw how this product could really help change lives, and could really help save lives,” Crumley said.
Crumley is now an advocate with the Tennessee Smoke Free Association, or the TSFA, helping to fight for the rights of more than 300 vape shops across the Volunteer State.
Her job is especially challenging now, as more regulations over the e-cigarette industry loom nationwide.
“Any advocate is going to tell you that their target consumer is the adult smoker,” Crumley said. “We don’t want kids, and we don’t want people who don’t already smoke. We’re not trying to create new habits. We’re trying to save lives.”
Here in the Tennessee Valley, Pulmonologist Dr. Minerva Covarrubias with Parkridge Health System says a few of her own patients this past summer had respiratory issues from vaping.
Their symptoms were similar to those of bacterial pneumonia.
“Some folks tried it for the first time, and became very ill. A few of the other folks had been vaping for quite some time, and then suddenly also became very ill,” Dr. Covarrubias said. “The patients that I took care of required life support, by means of mechanical ventilation.”
And they’re not alone.
Thousands of people have gotten sick, and dozens have died from lung injuries tied to vaping in the U.S.
The CDC recently announced that Vitamin E acetate could be to blame for the recent outbreak.
THC, a psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, was also found in many of the lung fluid samples.
The CDC says it’s still doing testing, and there could be more causes.
“The CDC has really taken upon itself to investigate why now we’re seeing really what’s an epidemic,” Covarubbias said.
Crumley says the people who are getting sick are those getting their products off the black market, not in a regular vape shop.
“These kids are buying THC cartridges,” Crumley said. “They put Vitamin E acetate in it to make it thicker because, I guess, according to them, the thicker the better, I don’t know, but that’s what they were doing was putting an additive in it. There’s no reason to do that with e-liquid. There’s four ingredients in it. It already is what it’s going to be. There’s literally no reason to have a black market for e-liquid, unless it was prohibited by a flavor ban.”
The FDA reports that more than three million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2018.
The agency says the number of high school students who vaped increased 78 percent that year.
Dr. Covarubbias says she doesn’t want vaping companies to advertise the different flavors, because it’s leading to young teens wanting to try e-cigarettes.
“The market for e-cigarettes and vaping really has seemed to have been targeting the younger population of folks,” Covarrubias said. “This is again not any different than what we saw with the tobacco industry, targeting the younger population as their future smokers, and their future customers.”
But Crumley says the target consumers of vape shops are adults looking to quit smoking, not getting kids to do it.
“We actually had some of the TSFA shops submit their data recently regarding the percentage of tobacco flavors versus fruit, dessert, and tobacco flavors and menthol combined only make up about 15 percent,” she said. “I don’t know of any business period that can survive on 15 percent of their sales. They just can’t. And that goes to show you that adults like flavors. All the TSFA shops are adult-only establishments, meaning you have to be 18 to even enter the store.”
Covarrubias says those adults looking to quit traditional cigarettes have options.
“We have safer and proven modalities for smoking cessation, through nicotine replacement strategies, and also medications, and we know how those work, and we know that those are safer,” Covarrubias said. “Certainly, folks worry about side effects, but I also remind them that the consequences and side effects of smoking and vaping outweigh a medication’s side effects that can help you kick the habit.”
Crumley believes smokers are more successful quitting when they vape. She says it’s still safer than traditional cigarettes.
“[Vaping is] safer. Anything that you put into your body that’s not supposed to be there is not safe. Period. It doesn’t matter what it is,” Crumley said.
President Donald Trump is expected to release e-cigarette restrictions to target youth vaping sometime this week.
He’s also looking to raise the age to purchase e-cigarettes.