The Colorado Department of Health and Environment has recently reported its ninth case of disease linked to vaping in Colorado and Pitkin County Public Health is stepping up outreach to people who vape or use e-cigarettes and their families to ensure they are aware of the risks.
“This is a serious disease. We have seen over 30 deaths across the country that were completely preventable. And the people who have died were otherwise completely healthy, young people,” remarks Karen Koennemann, Pitkin County Public Health’s Director.
This illness particularly concerning in the Roaring Fork Valley. Colorado has the unfortunate title of having the highest rate of teens using e-cigarettes in the country, according to the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. Rates in the Roaring Fork Valley 3 to 4 times the national average. Many people, including teens, have started using e-cigarettes thinking they are “safe”. However, research over the past few years is showing otherwise. There’s a high risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, and chronic bronchitis. New research has just shown that e-cigarettes cause lung and bladder cancer in mice. And, for young people, no amount of nicotine or marijuana is safe for the developing brain. That means that even if a cause for this illness is discovered, vaping will still be incredibly dangerous for young people.
Over 1,200 cases of serious lung disease nationwide have been linked definitively to vaping or using e-cigarettes. The majority of those cases have ended up in the hospital, with many needing intensive care and even mechanical ventilation for some. In Colorado, seven of the nine cases have required inpatient care.
While there has been a lot of speculation about the cause, and a flurry of news pieces daily pointing fingers to certain products and away from others, the truth is that the cause of this rash of illnesses is still not known.
“If you have heard ‘it’s only Dank Vapes’, or ‘it’s only counterfeit vapes’, or ‘Juul is fine’ – none of this has basis in the actual facts,” explains Risa Turetsky, Pitkin County Public Health’s tobacco program coordinator. “Some of these ideas were considered in the beginning, but as we get more evidence, these theories have not been substantiated. We are waiting for the CDC investigation to turn up real answers.”
Use of THC or CBD, active chemicals from the marijuana plant, has been reported by the majority of people who have gotten ill and there are a large percentage of cases who reported only nicotine use. And most reported both.
“Ultimately the message is this: Breathing any chemical, vape, or smoke into your lungs, especially if it is not approved by the FDA, is risky”, Turetsky said
To address this ongoing risk, Pitkin, Garfield, and Eagle counties’ health departments have coordinated to support policies that reduce the availability of these products for kids. In June, Aspen became the first locality in the state to put in place a ban on the sale of all flavored tobacco products. Pitkin County and the Town of Snowmass Village will hearing policies to do the same in the coming weeks, and Pitkin County will also consider raising the age of sale to 21 for all tobacco. The schools and many youth programs are also doing their part to get the word out and to support young people to quit their addiction.
Meanwhile, people who have used e-cigarettes or any vape device in the past 90 days should see their health care provider if they are feeling sick, especially if they are having trouble breathing. “With winter on the horizon, it may become more difficult to differentiate flu-like symptoms from respiratory illness associated with vaping” warns Carlyn Porter, Epidemiologist with Pitkin County Public Health.
For people who are using e-cigarettes, Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment advises avoiding any potentially counterfeit product, including products bought online, and ideally avoiding all vape and e-cigarette products completely. For those people who are using e-cigarettes to switch from cigarettes, don’t go back to cigarettes – there are many resources to help you quit for good. The Colorado QuitLine is accessible for free counseling (and it’s confidential down to age 12) in English and Spanish at 800-QUIT-NOW or online at coquitline.com. The QuitLine will provide a free supply of nicotine replacement therapy for callers over 18 years. For young people, the schools also have lots of great resources. And health care providers can provide counseling and nicotine replacement – all of this is completely covered by Medicaid and most insurance plans.
Karen Koenemann, Director of Pitkin County Public Health - (970) 429-6171
Risa Turetsky, Health Promotion Program Administrator - (970) 429-3327