CAPITAL REGION — Calling it a “frightening public health phenomenon,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday directed the state Department of Health to address both the increasing number of cases of vaping-associated respiratory illnesses and the growing use of vaping products by young people.
Cuomo not only directed the Health Department to subpoena companies marketing and selling “thickening agents” used in black-market vaping products, but to issue emergency regulations mandating that warning signs be posted in all vape and smoke shops as well. He also said he will advance new legislation to ban flavored e-cigarettes.
“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.
Cuomo’s warning, and a separate state Health Department warning issued on Saturday, follow reports of a pattern of serious lung illnesses among users of THC and nicotine vaping products in New York state and around the country. THC is the active ingredient in marijuana.
Patty Kilgore, director of school-based services for The Prevention Council in Saratoga Springs, which provides drug and alcohol education in Saratoga County schools, said there probably isn’t any one cause of the illnesses.
“We don’t know what it is, but we do know vaping is involved, so stop vaping,” she said. “Unless you’re already a tobacco user, nobody should ever have vaping marketed to them.”
The Prevention Council has been talking about vaping in its school presentations for three or four years, Kilgore said, and ramped up its presentations about a year and half ago, as vaping became more prevalent in high schools. The new warnings will be incorporated into their presentations, she said.
“We’re seeing anywhere from 30 to 60 percent (of high school students) having at least tried it, and it’s very quick to become addicted,” Kilgore said. “We’re seeing it, unfortunately, also in the middle schools.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its own warning late last week.
The New York State Vapor Association however warned government officials that confusing e-cigarettes with unregulated street drugs will likely cause hundreds of thousands of New York users, who may have never used illicit THC products, to return to smoking cigarettes.
“If a bad batch of penicillin causes illness and death, CDC doesn’t recommend people stop using all antibiotics. It is irresponsible to warn people to stop vaping life-saving e-cigarettes when tainted ‘e-joints’ have already been isolated as the source. After achieving all-time low smoking rates, these misleading statements will cost thousands of lives when New Yorkers return to cigarettes,” says the organization’s Spike Babaian.
The owner of one Capital Region vape shop said the problems are occurring when people use products purchased off the street, and there isn’t an issue with the products sold in commercial shops, whose products have been subject to U.S. Food and Drug Administration approvals.
“The problems have been with fake THC products. It’s got nothing to do with the nicotine cartridges,” said Joshua Cross, manager of the Super Smoke N Save in Saratoga Springs. “If you’re buying something off the street from a nobody, you don’t know what you’re getting.”
Cross said he got into the vaping business after it helped him quit smoking cold turkey, seven years after the birth of his son.
“We’re all totally for getting people off of cigarettes,” Cross said. “I’ve probably had 1,000 people get off cigarettes from my store alone. Buy from your reputable places, and you’ll be 100 percent fine.”
The state Health Department warning did say an ingredient called Vitamin E acetate, a nutritional supplement found in cannabis-containing e-cigarette products, appears linked to nearly all the New York state illnesses.
“Never will there be any Vitamin E oil in anything we’re selling, ever,” Cross said. The only ingredients in legitimate vaping products, he said, are propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavorings and nicotine.
As of Sept. 5, the state Health Department had received 34 reports from New York state physicians of severe respiratory illness among patients between ages 15 and 46 who had used a cannabis-containing vaping product before becoming ill. There have been no deaths reported in New York state, though there have been at least five nationally.
Kilgore said she expects the number of diagnosed deaths to rise, now that the medical community is more aware that vaping could cause severe lung illness even in new users.
“Certainly we did not think people would die quite so quickly, but we knew lung issues would come up because of vaping, and come up fairly quickly,” Kilgore said. “Anecdotally, we’re talking about huge increases in pneumonia in that 15- to 24-year-old age group.”
That may be because the heated vapors in vaping liquids turn back into liquids in the lungs, “and liquid never belongs in your lungs,” Kilgore said.
The CDC has worked closely since August with the Federal Drug Administration, states and other public health partners, the CDC said in a statement.
“We are committed to finding out what is making people sick,” said said CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield. “All available information is being carefully analyzed, and these initial findings are helping us narrow the focus of our investigation and get us closer to the answers needed to save lives.”
As of late last week, the CDC reported more than 25 states have reported possible cases of lung illnesses associated with e-cigarette products.
In New York, a new law that takes effect this fall will prohibit the sale of vaping products to customers under age 21. On Monday, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, introduced a bill that would ban the sale of e-cigarette products until the FDA determines the cause of the recent illnesses. It won’t be considered by the Legislature until January. Cuomo said on Monday he will propose his own prohibition legislation.
The American Heart Association, America Cancer Society, Capital District Tobacco Free Coalition and others were to speak Monday night to the Albany County Legislature, which is weighing new restrictions on vaping products.