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Vaping Illness Officially Named After 27+ Deaths

Once upon a time, vaping was seen as the ‘healthier alternative to smoking’. Vaping companies praised the product as a ‘step forward’ from traditional paper products, shepherding aged American smokers to ‘make the switch’ for their own sake.  

However, as the product also caught on with American youth, many teens fell prey to mysterious medical illnesses whose exact sources still remained unclear.  

As of October 2019, vaping has claimed over two dozen total lives. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has recently given an official name to the illness responsible for these deaths: E-cigarette or Vaping use-Associated Lung Illness (EVALI). The name was revealed by the CDC through a guidance report that aims to educate healthcare providers on how to best aid new patients. Medical experts are close to determining a source for the mysterious lung illnesses, but are not yet certain.  

In an interview with LiveScience, Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health, offered two possibilities. Possibility one is a traditional health risk that also comes with cigarettes – a buildup of certain viscous oils that accompany the inhaled vapors.  

Siegel explains that these oils are particularly damaging to the lungs, as they aren’t designed to handle such a substance. The oils prevent the lungs from effectively receiving oxygen. In their attempts to rid themselves of the coating, the lungs often become enflamed, further worsening the problem.  

“The lungs cannot work properly [due to the oil buildup]”, said Dr. Siegel. “The patient may experience respiratory failure requiring mechanical respiration”. Without quick medical intervention, respiratory failure could very easily prove fatal to a victim. 

The other possibility is a risk factor that is present in vaping instruments, but not in standard cigarettes. A team of researchers published a study to the New England Journal of Medicine, revealing that the lung-related illnesses so commonly linked to frequent vaping could be the result of a toxic chemical that attacks and hinders lung tissue. The study showed that in some instances, this damage grew to be so severe that the cell walls of a patient’s lung tissue would begin to fall off, resulting in a buildup of other bodily substances and preventing the body from easily transmitting oxygen. 

But what makes this illness particularly deadly is the speed at which it can take effect. Cigarette smoking is still extremely dangerous – and the number one preventable cause of death in the United States – but most fatal ailments brought on by smoking tend to crop up later in one’s life. Smoking can increase one’s chance of contracting Coronary Heart Disease, America’s #1 cause of death in 2018, by 2 to 4 times. However, heart disease is much more likely to occur after the ages of 45 in men and 50 in women. 

On the other hand, EVALI has had no issues targeting younger users of vaping products, as evidenced by the death of a 17-year old New York teen covered in a New York Times piece. The article also highlights a CDC news briefing from October 2019. During the briefing, CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat noted that over 80 percent of patients in the 1,100+ vaping cases reported worldwide have been under 35 years old. 

Written by Joseph Detrano, CAS Science Writer
Disclaimer: The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies.