Addiction Policy Forum Blog

7 min read

We know vaping can cause serious lung problems. A new study says it might also cause cancer.

By Mark Gold, MD on December 19, 2019

In a study published this week, researchers asked tens of thousands of individuals over 12 years of age about their use of tobacco products, e-cigarettes, and their health, and conducted follow-up questions over three years.1 They found the development of lung problems like emphysema, bronchitis, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in individuals who had used e-cigarettes in the past or currently use them. Combined use of e-cigarette and tobacco products dramatically increased lung disease risks by an incredible 330 percent. The researchers concluded that, “Use of e-cigarettes is an independent risk factor for respiratory disease in addition to combustible tobacco smoking.” The study’s senior author, Stanton Glantz, told CNN, "I was a little surprised that we could find evidence on incident lung disease in the longitudinal study, because three years is a while but most studies that look at the development of lung disease go over 10 to 20 years.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that, as of December 10, 2019, there are 2,409 hospitalization cases of vaping-related lung injuries in the U.S., resulting in 52 deaths across 26 states and Washington, D.C.2 The FDA has found THC in most of the samples it’s studying from these cases and has highlighted Vitamin E acetate as a chemical linked to some of the lung injuries. But the CDC warns that it still does not know how many other chemicals and products may be involved, and says that, “the best way for people to ensure that they are not at risk while the investigation continues is to consider refraining from the use of all e-cigarette, or vaping, products.” NIDA just reported that 3.5 percent of 12th graders and 3 percent of 10th graders say they vape on a daily basis, with 14 percent of 12th graders also saying that they vaped marijuana in the previous month. That figure is twice as large as it was last year. 

Though federal officials have reportedly backed away from banning flavored vaping products3, some states have implemented such restrictions. And other national lawmakers are still considering similar options to confront the vaping epidemic.4 Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA Commissioner, has now recommended banning all cartridge-based e-cigarette products, which would include popular devices like Juul.5 Gottlieb, along with other experts, is worried about the epidemic of youth vaping, nicotine use and dependence which can lead to the use of tobacco-based products, the number one cause of preventable death, and other substances later in life. 

Stories about vaping-related severe lung diseases, the epidemic of youth use, and public policy responses are important for patients, families, medical professionals, and consumers to follow. But we should also continue to monitor research that paints an even more distressing picture of e-cigarette products. In a recent study, researchers looked at the association between e-cigarette use and cancer.

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8 min read

What you should know about the multistate outbreak of severe lung problems linked to e-cigarettes and vaping

By Mark Gold, MD on September 12, 2019

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently issued a warning about vaping following a multistate outbreak of severe lung problems linked to the use of electronic cigarettes.1 According to the CDC, there are, as of September 6, 450 reported cases of possible vaping-linked lung problems across 33 states and 1 territory, resulting in 6 deaths.2 Officials have not identified a specific e-cigarette product as a cause of the illnesses, meaning that various devices on the market could be contributing to this alarming pattern. Patients admitted for lung problems report difficulty breathing, fatigue, fever, nausea, and vomiting. Somehow, to proponents and purveyors of e-cigarettes, the very idea that vaping could be dangerous seems to have come as a surprise.3 

The CDC updated its warning to suggest that e-cigarette and vaping device users refrain from using the products at all during the course of its investigation. It has also warned against buying counterfeit or street vaping products, including those with THC or other cannabinoids, and against modifying e-cigarette products. Moreover, the CDC urges youth, pregnant women, and adults who do not currently use tobacco products to refrain from using e-cigarette products, and encourages individuals who smoke and want to quit to use FDA-approved medications instead of e-cigarettes. Some health officials and experts believe that street vaping products with illicit or tainted substances may be behind the outbreak of lung problems, but no one can be certain at this point. Some patients have reported using vaping cartridges with THC or cannabinoids, but others have reported using different vaping cartridges without such substances. Most contain ingredients not generally tested for chronic inhalation in humans, and, to make matters worse, they can become contaminated in ways detrimental to respiratory and heart health.4 It is unlikely that any substance you inhale has been tested for safety for weeks, months, or over the long haul. But inhalation from vaping has effects on the lungs that are dramatic, can be easily seen on imaging5, and do not seem easy to reverse. Tobacco smoking in the English colonies of North America started early and peaked in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, credible evidence proving its causal links to cancer, emphysema, and bronchitis emerging only over a century after its explosive growth and wild popularity.6 Why would boosters and defenders of today’s e-cigarettes, looking back at this history, believe that research would come to indicate the product’s benefits for the lungs, or for the respiratory health of those they may expose to vaping?

While experts and officials will continue to study this outbreak and may identify particular illicit substances as the culprit, the headlines have naturally raised questions for individuals who vape about long term consequences. What we know about cigarette smoking is bad enough, but there are few surprises. Here, we’re in uncharted territory. Yes, the FDA and other agencies will look at the broader health and safety of e-cigarette products and devices, but in the meantime, users will need to be evaluated and hope that their own lungs are not compromised in ways that only become clearly understood after they stop, or years down the line. While receiving considerably less media coverage, journalists recently found that the FDA began investigating vaping-associated seizures after some users of JUUL, the top-selling vaping product in the U.S., submitted claims of seizures to the administration’s safety portal.7

It is important to note that Research You Can Use previously observed that there is not yet enough evidence to conclude whether e-cigarettes are suitable for smoking cessation. Some researchers now suggest that vaping nicotine may not be safer than smoking tobacco cigarettes.8 More recently, the FDA has agreed that JUUL’s claims of comparative safety are unproven.9 Other new studies have looked at the relative health of ingredients in some e-cigarette products, and the effects of vaping on the vascular system. The truth is that it’s risky and scientifically invalid to start from the premise that drugs are safe until proven dangerous. It reminds me of cocaine being touted as safe, or non-addicting, or even as “the champagne of drugs” until the aftermath of widespread use in the 1970s and 80s demonstrated that it was highly addictive and led to heart problems, brain damage, and other diseases.10

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