Health

Louisville officials are urging residents to stop vaping following an outbreak of a severe lung illnesses that’s been associated with e-cigarette use.

“As a public health professional, our message is simple: Vaping is not safe,” said Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness Director Sarah Moyer. “The industry is not regulated by the FDA. And right now there is no way to know if a product you buy in a store [is] safer than products you buy on the street.”

And indeed, federal health agencies don’t pre-approve or test vaping ingredients for safety. Some people buy vapes in retail stores; others use e-cigarettes containing THC — the ingredient in marijuana that makes a smoker “high” — that they’ve bought either legally in states where marijuana is legal or on the black market.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week said there are now more than 805 cases of these lung illnesses across 46 states. The federal agency says almost two-thirds of sickened patients are between ages 18 and 34. Another 16 percent are younger than age 18.  

Moyer spoke at a press conference Monday where Mayor Greg Fischer also announced he’s looking at ways Metro government might be able to curb youth vaping.

“I’m directing my staff to immediately explore steps we can take within local Metro government or working with Metro Council, or the state general assembly to reduce the use of e-cigarettes in our community, particularly amongst our young people to prevent this crisis from getting worse,” Fischer said.

Those steps could include a ban on flavored vape sales in Jefferson County, but Fischer said he’s not sure if Louisville Metro government can take that action. Flavored vapes have been cited as a reason teens and young adults vape.

Meanwhile, Kentucky officials said Friday they’ve confirmed that one Kentuckian has the severe lung illness. The confirmed case is of a white man who reported using a modified vape with only nicotine and no THC, according to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. At least one of 20 cases the state is investigating is a Louisville resident and the state has deemed three of the 20 cases are “probable” instances of the nationwide outbreak.

The CDC says a little more than two-thirds of patients nationwide reported some use of THC-containing vapes. Some states, like Wisconsin, are reporting that many patients used counterfeit vapes.

Earlier this month WFPL reported that one Louisville resident had been hospitalized following vape use. Rashelle Bernal said she’d used vapes bought in a legal store in California, where she’d recently moved from. She said some contained THC, while others just contained nicotine.

Bernal said since that story published, the Food and Drug Administration has contacted her to conduct an investigation. She said the FDA is the only health agency that’s been in touch with her.

Pushback

E-cigarette industry leaders have called actions like Moyers’ call to stop vaping “irresponsible,” because some adults have used vaping to quit smoking cigarettes. Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, said there is evidence that shows vaping is effective in helping people quit smoking.

“In a in a state that has such a high adult smoking rate, it is utterly irresponsible for health authorities to be telling these adult smokers, that they’re better off continuing to smoke than vape,” Conley said. “And that is the message that they are sending by just telling people don’t vape.”

But Moyer with the Department for Public Health and Wellness said that’s not what she’s doing. Instead, she urged people to use FDA-approved smoking cessation methods, which are free through the health department.

“If you’re using e-cigarettes to quit cigarette smoking, don’t return to regular cigarettes,” Moyer said. “The Department of Public Health and Wellness offers free smoking and vaping sensation classes with FDA-approved nicotine replacement products, such as patches and gum.”

She added that the CDC says 16 percent of patients with the recent lung illness have reported only using nicotine-containing products, rather than those which may have contained THC.

“Right now, we can’t say that there are any vaping products, including those bought in stores, that do not cause this deadly lung condition,” Moyer said. 

 

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.