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In Maryland and across the country, the health downfalls of vaping keep mounting

A person smokes an electronic cigarette in Paris. We are still learning the health consequences from vaping.
A person smokes an electronic cigarette in Paris. We are still learning the health consequences from vaping. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

The manufacturers of e-cigarettes frequently tout the devices as healthier versions of the traditional cigarette — an effective tool that can help ween smokers off tobacco products without exposing them to tar and other dangerous and toxic chemicals.

But a recent nationwide outbreak of a mysterious and potentially fatal lung disease linked to vaping has brought attention again to the fact that we really don’t know all the negative and dangerous side effects of the devices.

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More than a couple hundred people, including five in Maryland, have developed the disease, which comes with symptoms that include trouble breathing, a painful cough, vomiting, nausea, fever and diarrhea that can become so severe people end up hospitalized. One death has been reported in Illinois, prompting the Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration and local health departments to issue warnings about the devices as they work vigorously to find other commonalities in the cases.

Late Friday, the CDC warned people to stay away from bootleg vaping products brought off the street and not to modify the products with cannibinoid oils or other chemcials. Taking it a step even further, they warned people to “consider refraining from using e-cigarette products” altogether. Instead, see a doctor to help with a cessation plan.

States are also sounding the alarm, warning residents to think twice about vaping. Milwaukee told people to stop vaping after 16 people were hospitalized there. Maryland health officials, while not calling for an all-out ban, suggested strongly that people err on the side of safety and not use the devices, mainly because not enough is known about the contents of the products. They warned that vaping products may contain substances that can be toxic when inhaled, but that people may never know because all of the ingredients aren’t necessarily listed.

Of course it is a personal choice whether an adult chooses to vape, but if anything, we think it would behoove people to use extreme caution when deciding whether or not to reach for an e-cigarette. The potential health risks aren’t really worth it.

While there is some indication that the spread of the lung disease is connected to people who vaped marijuana, no one will know for sure until a full investigation is completed. So far the disease has not been linked to any particular device, substance or brand.

The American Vaping Association has called foul and said their devices are being unfairly targeted. They blamed spread of disease on black market cartridges that contain cannabis oil. They want the CDC to make that distinction, but we think the agency is doing its due diligence by checking out all possibilities. Plus, some of the cases involved people vaping nicotine. We’d lean toward taking the advice of an agency with the mission of protecting people’s health over a company thinking about its bottom line. What concerns the vaping association more, losing customers or making sure people don’t get sick?

As CDC director Dr. Robert R. Redfield recently said in a statement: “Vaping exposes users to many different substances for which we have little information about related harms — including flavorings, nicotine, cannabinoids, and solvents. CDC has been warning about the identified and potential dangers of e-cigarettes and vaping since these devices first appeared.”

We wish the CDC would use the same forcefulness when it comes to informing people about the other dangers of e-cigarettes. Many people don’t realize they are not the panacea the manufacturers want people to believe they are. They do help some people stop smoking cigarettes — but at other costs.

Most notably, the concentrated nicotine is very addicting. So while users may not ingest the carcinogens contained in cigarettes that cause cancer, they may find it hard to stop using the devices because of intense nicotine cravings. Nicotine can also have long-term damaging effects on developing brains and cardiovascular health, leading to increased heart rate and blood pressure, according to Harvard University researchers. Nicotine exposure is especially problematic in young people because it can impede brain development in adolescents and lead to changes in the brain that can in turn lead to addiction to other drugs, research has found. Scientists have also shown that flavored e-cigarettes have a chemical called diacetyl associated with a disease that damages airways in the lungs.

Even if the recent spread of lung disease is found to be linked to cannabis oil, that doesn’t mean the scrutiny of e-cigarettes should stop there. In Maryland, some strides have been made to protect youth, including raising the age to buy e-cigarettes. But more can be done. We could start by requiring that all the ingredients in vaping liquid, along with their dangers, be listed on packaging.

After all, it is not just kids who face the unknown health risks of e-cigarettes. It is anyone who tries them.

This editorial has been updated to reflect a warning about vaping issued by the CDC late Friday.

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