When I first heard about the rash of vaping-related illnesses and deaths, I was concerned.
I know people who use e-cigarettes -- friends and relatives, all adults -- and I didn't want them to get sick. So I did some research, which helped ease my worries.
Turns out, most or all of the cases of vaping-related lung illnesses that have been reported appear linked to the use of products obtained on the black market, typically containing THC -- the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana -- or cannabis.
The vapers I know don't buy vaping cartridges off the street, or vape THC or cannabis. They vape nicotine, and use products purchased from commercial retailers.
You'd never know it from the hysterical overreaction to the surge in vaping-related illnesses, but the real threat to health appears to be products purchased on the black market, not traditional e-cigarettes that have been on the market for years.
Unfortunately, state and federal officials have done little to make this distinction to a worried public.
In one statement on the matter, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued some sensible advice -- "if you don't know what you're smoking, don't smoke it" -- before turning around and making a generalization so sweeping and broad as to be completely useless to those seeking clarity on the matter.
"Vaping is dangerous, period," the governor said, "and we are urging New Yorkers to stop using these products until we have more information about this public health crisis."
I'm not going to argue that vaping is healthy, because it's not.
Part of the reason we're in the midst of a vaping panic is due to a lack of information. The Food and Drug Administration doesn't actively regulate e-cigarettes, and little is known about their long-term health impacts.
But there's a lot of research to suggest that e-cigarettes are helping adults quit smoking, and that smoking is the greater evil. The number of vaping deaths -- eight thus far -- is positively infinitesimal when compared to the 480,000 U.S. deaths claimed by cigarettes each year.
Last week New York took the drastic step of banning the sale of almost all flavored e-cigarettes, and this week Walmart announced that it will stop selling e-cigarettes.
It seems unlikely that these heavy-handed actions will accomplish much good, given that everything we're learning about the vaping crisis indicates that dangerous products sold on black market are at the root of the problem.
Making it harder for adults who use e-cigarettes to find what they're looking for won't stem the rise in vaping-related illnesses.
And if people turn to the black market to get what they want, there could be harmful unintended consequences.
What's needed is a more measured approach to a troubling public health crisis.
Officials need to do a better job of educating the public as to what is actually happening.
Trying to convince millions of people to stop vaping isn't realistic, but warning those most at risk of getting sick -- i.e., those vaping marijuana -- might get people's attention.
Fear-mongering gets people's attention, but also risks making bad situations worse.
The rise in vaping-related illnesses demands a response.
But not a panicked, knee-jerk response.
Surely, we can do better.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]