With a rise in lung illnesses and deaths related to vaping, some Westminster College students are speaking out against government officials and the media for sensationalizing the issue.
National and state governments are calling for a ban on devices such as electronic cigarettes and nicotine pods — despite not having a definitive cause of these vaping-related hospitalizations.
The CDC has confirmed roughly 530 cases of dangerous respiratory illnesses and seven deaths as of Sept. 17.
In response, White House officials announced Sept. 11 they’re asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to consider taking flavored electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, off the market.
There are currently 42 reported vaping-related hospitalization cases in Utah, according to Rebecca Ward, a health educator for the Utah Department of Health.
Vaping Epidemic in Utah
Every patient has a different degree of severity with some patients reporting vaping just nicotine, some just marijuana cartridges and some with both, Ward said. Because of these varying conditions, it’s difficult to pinpoint an underlying cause.
“There’s not information known so we don’t have conclusive evidence to what’s causing this,” Ward said. “But one illness is too many.”
Utah Senator Mitt Romney also called for action, tweeting at the FDA to “consider recalling e-cigarettes” noting his concern that young people have been “deceived into thinking e-cigarettes are safe.”
Some students have raised concerns of their own, noting that while the practice can be unsafe the government isn’t focusing on the right concerns.
“If you’re going to outright ban JUULs and mods and any type of nicotine vaping, you need to ban cigarettes as well,” said Sienna Vollbrecht, a junior at Westminster. “They’re in the same plane. They’re both dangerous and you don’t need them, they’re not good for your health but people are still allowed to smoke cigarettes.”
Although there aren’t confirmed links between these lung diseases and vaping, several health officials have connected conditions with Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that creates a high from smoking marijuana.
Health officials also discovered several cases were linked to Vitamin E acetate, a supplement thought to be harmless but dangerous when inhaled because it coats the lungs in an oily substance.
“Oil does not belong in the lungs,” Ward said. “If patients are vaping THC they purchased off the street and not knowing where it came from, it could be cut with this Vitamin E and that could be what’s […] causing these issues.”
Lungs aren’t designed to store anything but gas, so with the presence of this oil patients experience side effects of chest pain and difficulty breathing.
“We don’t know if they’re an infectious disease or if Vitamin E is linked to the cases,” Ward said. “We just don’t have enough information.”
With this spike in hospitalizations with no known cause, the public has become more concerned.
“There must be something pretty serious the public doesn’t understand about it yet,” said Vollbrecht, an outdoor and education leadership major. “There’s got to be some kind of urgency to the whole situation [which is] why everyone’s like, ‘Yeah we got to study this now.’”
Vaping has been widely marketed as a safer alternative to smoking, but some students are raising their eyebrows at this claim.
“I think it’s pretty concerning,” said Sam Wilson, an alum who graduated with a degree in biology. “The whole premise behind vaping was that it was supposed to be more healthy than smoking. It was supposed to prevent somebody’s lung diseases and now that they’re finding this happening is kind of surprising.”
Despite these consequences Wilson doesn’t think a recall would solve the problem, but stricter regulations could help.
“I don’t know if we should ban them,” Wilson said. “I think they have their place to help people who actually do have smoking problems. I think the government should do more clinical research. The CDC should have clinical trials so they can see the effects. I think right now as it is, they shouldn’t be banned.”
Students Say Issue is “Sensationalized”
Without a specific cause of the illnesses, some students say the government and health officials are wrongly pointing to all types of e-cigarettes as the problem.
Rather than focusing on specific cases and educating the public on dangerous vaping mixtures, said Westminster student Mauri Hefley, many people point to demonizing the entire practice.
“It feels like a way to punish these people for something they were already doing before,” said Hefley, a fourth-year BFA acting student. “I think they’re definitely taking [it] a little too far in the sense that we already have some of those regulations in place to keep people who are underage away from vaping.”
Hefley said with this publicity in the media, stigma toward vaping has increased. With this stigmatization, teenagers and young adults could see it as edgy and the “cool” thing to do.
“You definitely see kids who pick up a JUUL because it was trendy and now they’ve got a nicotine addiction,” Hefley said.
Other students agree, saying the media has elicited feelings of skepticism toward the epidemic.
Senior art administration major Emily Engstrom said the reactions from dramatic headlines pointing to vaping as a societal problem is what bothers her.
“I have a lot of mixed feelings about it because when [people] say ‘vaping epidemic’, I’m not going to lie I internally groan because it’s a misrepresentation,” Engstrom said. “Because it’s sensationalized people are like, ‘All vape is terrible’ and that’s not accurate.”
Some Students and Experts Agree: A Ban Wouldn’t Solve the Problem
As the White House and state governments discuss bans on e-cigarettes, some experts said a ban would only increase the issue.
In an interview with Vice, Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at NorthEastern University, said a ban would further encourage experimentation of mixing vape liquids that may have caused the spike of hospitalizations in the first place.
A ban could push consumers back to traditional cigarettes, Beletsky said, and create opportunities for e-cigarette black markets.
Emily Engstrom said a ban isn’t the cure for the problem, but education and stepping away from scare tactics to separate facts from fear.
“You need to do your research,” Engstrom said. “You have to step aside from emotion and have that healthy balance.”
Some Westminster students agree that making them illegal would make the situation more dangerous.
“I think [a ban] is ridiculous,” Mauri Hefley said. “I mean people are still going to find a way to get that even if they don’t have access. That’s where you’re really going to run into issues. If you take that away completely, you’re not going to have any regulation over it.”