Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state health officials held a press conference Monday addressing the growing number of vaping-related respiratory illnesses and the increased rate of young people using the products.
There have been four deaths so far, and the cause of a fifth is being investigated, in which vaping — the use of e-cigarettes — is suspected to be the cause. Hundreds more have been sickened by what is thought to be the same illness.
The first case of the mysterious lung illness, in Illinois, was reported in April. At first there were just a few scattered cases in June, but now it has become a widespread public health emergency.
To date, 450 people in 33 states have become ill. There are 41 cases in New York state, ranging in age from 15 to 46, according to Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health department commissioner.
Symptoms of the illness include pulmonary conditions such as cough, shortness of breath and chest pain; fatigue; fever; headache; weight loss; and gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, according to the governor’s office. Symptoms can take days or weeks to develop.
At Monday’s press conference in New York City, the governor announced that subpoenas have been issued to companies marketing and selling “thickening agents” that are used in black market vaping products. Cuomo also said he would direct the Department of Health to mandate warning signs in all vape and smoke shops in the state, and will advance new legislation banning flavored e-cigarettes to discourage vaping among young people.
“Common sense says if you do not know what you are smoking, don’t smoke it, and right now we don’t know what you are smoking in a lot of these vaping substances,” Cuomo said.
Dr. Lymaris Garcia, a pulmonologist at Columbia Memorial Health, said she has not received reports of any local cases. The cause of the illness, she said, remains a mystery.
“We don’t really know what is causing the illness,” Garcia said. “Vaping has been around for 10 years and for some reason, we are only recently seeing this illness. There have to be more studies to analyze vaping and the cause of the illness. All we know is that people are presenting with symptoms and they vape, so we have connected it to the vaping.”
Karen dePeyster, program director of Tobacco-Free Action of Columbia & Greene Counties, said there is cause for alarm.
“There is no question that something is very wrong because people are getting sick and dying,” dePeyster said. “We have heard from the Department of Health that they think they have pinpointed the cause to vitamin E that is used as an additive, and it may have been added by somebody doing it themselves. We are glad there are health warnings out to not use vaping products.”
Health officials believe people are being sickened by black market vaping products in which vitamin E has been added, Zucker said. His department is having samples of “thickeners” manufactured by several companies for use in vaping products analyzed at the state’s laboratory, The Wadsworth Center, in Albany.
“When high levels of vitamin E are inhaled into your lungs, all the way down into the small air sacs of your lungs, since those air sacs are where you get oxygen into your body, you can get quite ill, and that is why we have unfortunately had five deaths across the nation from this,” Zucker said.
The three companies that are being issued subpoenas are Honey Cut Labs LLC in California, Floraplez Terpenes in Michigan and Mass Terpenes in Massachusetts. More companies will likely be ordered to provide samples as the investigation continues, according to the governor’s office.
In addition to the investigation into vaping additives, the state health department will also take steps to try to deter people from using vaping products, including requiring stores to post signs about the dangers of vaping, and launching a public service campaign to educate the public on the risks of vaping, Cuomo said.
Cuomo also said he plans to put forward legislation prohibiting the sale of flavored electronic liquids to discourage use of e-cigarettes by young people.
Vaping among young people is a growing problem, dePeyster said.
“Before there was this alarm set off by the respiratory problems, we have seen an alarming increasing rate of young people using Juul and other really high concentrated nicotine products,” dePeyster said. “I don’t want it to be overshadowed that in addition to these lung issues, even more pervasive is the risk that young people are becoming addicted to nicotine, and I don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that nicotine causes changes in the developing brain.”
Those changes can have negative impact on teens who start the vaping or smoking habit.
“It can affect a child’s ability to concentrate and learn, and also makes them much more vulnerable to addictions to other substances,” dePeyster said, adding that she supports a ban on flavored nicotine products.
Nearly 40% of 12th-grade students and 27% of high-school students in New York use e-cigarettes, according to Department of Health data.
On Saturday, the department issued guidance to New Yorkers to stop vaping while the state’s investigation into vaping-associated illnesses is conducted.
Health officials recommend that anyone who uses a vaping product and feels symptoms should contact a physician.
“If somebody who has been vaping has the symptoms and can’t connect them to something else, they should contact their doctor and be seen by a pulmonologist,” Garcia said. “But the first thing they should do if they suspect symptoms is to stop vaping.”
For more information, contact the New York State Department of Health’s Vaping Hotline at 1-888-364-3046.