Health

The Kentucky Department of Public Health will begin tracking cases of a mysterious illness linked to vaping. Nearly 200 cases among teenagers and young adults from as many as 22 states have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of late last week.

Acting Kentucky State Epidemiologist Douglas Thoroughman said beginning next week, the agency will ask providers to voluntarily report any cases of teens or young adults with symptoms of the severe lung illness.

“If you’ve got someone, especially younger patients — because that’s where we’re seeing a lot of this nationally — that are having acute respiratory distress syndrome, or pulmonary issues that have had a pretty sudden onset, ask questions,” Thoroughman said. “Are they vaping? Are they using e-cigarettes?” 

Cases have been reported in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana. One patient in Illinois has died. Ohio officials said last week they are investigating six potential severe lung illness cases in which patients reported using e-cigarettes or vapes.

According to the CDC, symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, fever and chest pain, among others. In some cases, symptoms worsened over a period of days or weeks and required hospitalization.

In Kentucky, Thoroughman said the health department hasn’t received any reports from providers of teens or young adults showing similar symptoms. 

“But it’s happening in other states, it might be happening here as well,” said Thoroughman.

A spokeswoman from Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville said they haven’t seen any cases of the illness there. And there haven’t been any patients presenting with those symptoms at the University of Louisville Hospital, a spokeswoman said. 

Even though there aren’t any apparent cases, some are criticizing the state for not tracking vaping-related illnesses sooner. Ben Chandler, president of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said doctors and researchers have sounded alarms about the known and potential harms for quite a while.  

“Welcome to the ninth inning is all I can say: they should have been on this a long time ago,” Chandler said. “Because other states are actually investigating, actively investigating these issues.”

But tracking vaping-related health incidents hasn’t been happening in Kentucky, or nationwide. According to a report from Kaiser Health News, there’s never been a clear way for doctors to report vaping-related illnesses to health authorities. While the Food and Drug Administration tracks incidents related to medical devices and drugs, e-cigarettes and vapes don’t fall in either category. 

A Common Denominator

Though the all of the cases found in other states are linked to vaping, health officials aren’t sure whether the cause is a new product, a new flavoring or some other vape component. Thoroughman said if Kentucky finds any confirmed cases, the CDC will compare those to cases in other states to see if there are any similarities.

“So the CDC has the opportunity then to look across the board: are they seeing any common exposures, particular substances that are in the vaping canisters, or cartridges, things like that,” Thoroughman said. “Our whole job is to try and prevent more cases. So we have to figure out what’s causing it in order to do that.”

Teen Vaping In Kentucky 

The use of e-cigarettes among teenagers is well documented, and increasing, in Kentucky. In 2017, about 14 percent of high schoolers reported vaping, and by 2018, 27 percent of high schoolers reporting having tried vaping. That’s according to surveys by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. 

And though vape pens are sometimes marketed as a way to quit smoking traditional cigarettes, there’s mounting evidence that teens take up vaping without ever smoking a cigarette. 

Investigations last year by The Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission found vaping companies market to teens. They said companies use flavors like bubble gum, roasted nut clusters and creamy milk and sliced bananas to appeal to teenagers and young adults. Chandler said young people become addicted to vaping because the products often contain nicotine. 

“They’re becoming addicted very quickly, and probably using them far, far too much,” Chandler said. “And people don’t know what’s in these products. They haven’t been vetted completely by the FDA.”

In the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers will consider a bill that would put an excise tax on e-cigarettes, which are currently the only tobacco product not taxed in Kentucky. 

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.