E-cigarettes holding the smoking gun? Hilltoppers continue to vape despite recent issues

A student walks through Centennial Mall exhaling smoke from a non-THC vape pen on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. Seven people in six states have died recently due to e-cigarette related pulmonary illnesses.

Brody Rexing

A move to ban flavored nicotine products by President Donald Trump could have a significant impact on WKU’s campus, as college-age adults and teenagers continue to be the largest demographic of electronic cigarette users despite recent health concerns.

A total of seven people in six states have recently died due to e-cigarette-related pulmonary illnesses, while 530 total Americans from 38 states and one U.S. territory report the same illness, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Use of nicotine e-cigarettes, known as “vaping,” is prevalent on WKU’s campus, but the nicotine content may not be the only killer.

E-cigarettes function through the heating of liquid to create an aerosol users inhale and exhale in “vape” form, which refers to the vapor-like substance exhaled after use. “Vape” is also used as a blanket term for the act itself.

A press release from the Kentucky Department of Health stated the issue has warranted a public health alert for doctors in the state. The statement, on behalf of state epidemiologist Doug Thoroughman, also claimed they plan on investigating reported cases to try and find “common factors and collect information” on what may be causing this issue.

Starting next week, state health officials will send a public health alert to clinicians and “will investigate any cases reported here to look for common factors and collect information on products that may be the source of the illness,” Thoroughman said in the release.

Concern among Hilltoppers is varied.

WKU student Trinton Rasey said Trump’s ban will do little to stop the rampant vape addictions or deaths.

“If he doesn’t understand how something works and why people use them, they shouldn’t be banned,” Rasey said.

Rasey said the problem lies where banning these products might force users to revert to smoking cigarettes. Rasey said he believes people will resort to finding “illegal means to get more unsafe vapes.”

Will Miller, a biology major at WKU, thinks determining what is at fault in these deaths should be left to health organizations to thoroughly examine.

“I think it’s really easy for people to just see a problem and a cause, relate the two, and not think any more about it,” Miller said.

Miller doesn’t see much validity in the ban, especially when the U.S. continues to allow the sale of cigarettes, which he believes are just as deadly.

DeJuan Simpson is a resident assistant at Minton Hall and knows there are plenty of students, especially freshmen, who often vape in their dorms. He is strong in his stance on vaping — or, rather, against it.

“First of all, you’re killing yourself,” Simpson said. “Second of all, I don’t know if its harmful to other people necessarily, but you are harming yourself.”

The liquid vape is not exclusively the legal and addictive chemical nicotine. Evidence suggests illness is just as likely to be caused by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabinoid (CBD) oil-based substances as vape “juice” containing nicotine, according to a re- port issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Academic journal Psychopharmacology stated THC is a psychoactive compound that can be extracted from marijuana and vaped, often in the form of a compact oil cartridge. The journal stated THC has widespread use due to its ability to create a high that is often quick and odorless in smoke.

CBD is THC’s non-psychoactive counterpart. It is used as an ingredient to treat conditions such as chronic pain and anxiety, among others, that can also be vaped in its oil form. Neither have undergone thorough scientific testing, nor are they regulated by the FDA.

“All patients have a reported history of e-cigarette product use, and no consistent evidence of an infectious cause has been discovered,” the CDC stated in its report. “Therefore, the suspected cause is a chemical exposure.”

The same report stated most studied patients claimed to have used THC, and many vaped the substance in tandem with nicotine products. Current state laws dictate marijuana, including THC and CBD, is fully legal in 11 states. Three states (California, Oregon and Illinois) are included in the vaping fatality list, although Illinois has yet to enact legalization. Kansas is the only state on the list of six where THC, CBD oils and marijuana itself are completely illegal.

WKU student Richard Gregor believes ill-manufactured THC cartridges, commonly known as “dab carts,” are the prime suspect in vape-related deaths. These cartridges are usually made and distributed without, as noted, any form of regulation — students who buy them have little idea what it is that they’re actually vaping.

Gregor said excessive amounts of vitamin E can cause overdoses. The Food and Drug Administration website stated it is investigating vitamin E as a possible lead in vaping-related health issues. 

“I’m not really tripping about my own tendency to smack a Juul,” Gregor said.

Vitamin E is used in an assortment of cosmetic products and skin creams and can cause serious damage to the lungs when used in THC oil extract. This goes without mentioning the poor health effects of putting any type of lipid into human lungs.

The CDC’s report makes no specific mention of vitamin E overuse as a possible factor in these deaths. This information doesn’t sway WKU student Mason Yoder, who fears what may come from misidentification of the problem.

“The media reports it as ‘vapes,’ which makes people believe it’s things like Juuls and mods, but it’s illegal dab carts causing the problem,” Yoder said. “I had already stopped using carts because of independent research showing how dangerous they really are, but now I’m for sure staying away.”

The independent study Yoder referred to is a Sept. 6 report from the New England Journal of Medicine, in which 53 case patients from Illinois and Wisconsin were interviewed. Each patient reported pulmonary illnesses in their respective states, and all had used “e-cigarette devices and related products” no more than 90 days before symptom onset. The study showed 17% of respondents only used nicotine, while 37% reported only THC use.

The CDC recommends that those who vape — be it nicotine, CBD or THC — should consider refraining from e-cigarette use until more is known about the cause of illness. 

It is also stressed that users do not, under any circumstances, purchase any of these products illegally or modify the e-cigarette itself beyond what its manufacturer intended.

News reporter Brody Rexing can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected].