U.S. health officials are urging people to avoid e-cigarettes while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigates 450 cases of lung illness and five deaths that may be linked to chemical exposure while vaping.
The cases span 33 different states, with deaths confirmed in California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Oregon, according to the CDC.
The disease has not been connected to a specific e-cig device, liquid, pod or cartridge, but officials said all reported cases involve people with a history of vaping. Many of the sufferers said they had been inhaling THC, the primary element of marijuana. It’s unclear whether the illness is a new phenomenon, or if cases before this year were unreported.
"We're all wondering if this is new or just newly recognized," Dr. Dana Meaney-Delman of the CDC told reporters Friday, according to the Associated Press.
New York state, which has reported 34 cases of severe lung disease, said its health department is investigating vitamin E acetate, which it found in both nicotine- and THC-based products. Vitamin E acetate is a commonly available nutritional supplement, and while it’s not known to cause harm when ingested as a vitamin supplement or applied to the skin, the health effects of inhaling the oil are unclear.
“When you inhale it, it gets deep into the lungs,” said Howard Zucker, the commissioner of the health department. “You get an inflammation, and the lungs cannot do their job.”
The Department of Health cautioned users not to buy products off the street or modify those they purchased in stores.
Although e-cigarettes are marketed as a cigarette alternative, public health experts are divided over whether vaping nicotine is as lethal as smoking conventional cigarettes.
The most popular e-cigarette is Juul, which dominates the market. It accounted for about 75 percent of the e-cigarette market share in the four-week period that ended in October, according to Nielsen data.
“JUUL Labs, which exists to help adult smokers switch off of combustible cigarettes, has been monitoring the situation closely," a Juul spokesperson said in a statement to Fox Business. "To be clear, the ingredients of our products do not include THC, any compound derived from cannabis, or vitamin E compounds like those found in THC products. We appreciate the work of the CDC, FDA and other public health authorities and are confident that they will get to the bottom of this issue.”
Last November, officials restricted sales of kid-friendly vaping flavors, some of which were offered by Juul, to young people in hopes of fighting what they describe as an “epidemic” of youth vaping. The Food and Drug Administration later accused Juul of reneging on its promise.
A Juul spokesperson told Fox Business at the time the company remained “committed as ever” to stopping underage vaping.