The Great American Vaping Panic is reaching its ghastly conclusion. As I write this, five people have died in hospital and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is investigating 450 reports of people going into seizures after vaping. Politicians are demanding a renewed clampdown on an e-cigarette industry that was being blamed for a youth ‘tobacco epidemic’ long before these events unfurled. The market leader, Juul, is under investigation by the FDA. Juul’s products are banned in its own hometown of San Francisco and it may not be long before they are banned nationwide.
Moral panics rarely come out of nowhere and there is a grain of truth in this one. Dozens of people, mainly young men, have been hospitalised after vaping in recent weeks. That is not a lie, but nor is it the whole truth. They were vaping unregulated street drugs. The forces lined up against e-cigarettes in the US – and they are legion – have done all they can to obscure this fact.
The prelude to the scare came in April when the FDA reported that 35 people had suffered ‘seizures’ after using e-cigarettes. The FDA’s press release was put out just two days before its commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, left the job. Gottlieb, who now works for Pfizer, had been leading the crackdown on e-cigarettes for two years, threatening to ban e-cigarette flavours and take entire product lines off the shelves. This was his parting shot. Sodium Bicarbonate: Na... Best Price: $7.25 Buy New $10.32 (as of 10:37 EST - Details)
Details about the ‘seizures and convulsions’ were thin on the ground. It was not clear how serious they were and there was no proof that they had been caused by vaping. Nor was it clear when they took place. The 35 cases were the sum total of recorded incidents from a 10-year period between 2010 and 2019. The FDA admitted that the facts were hazy but nevertheless speculated that nicotine was to blame. The agency appealed to the public to go to its website and report more cases. This they did. Within a few months, the number of reports had risen to 127.
The situation escalated in mid-August when 22 young adults were hospitalised with breathing difficulties in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. All had a recent history of vaping. Initial news reports made little mention of the fact but most, if not all, of the individuals had been vaping Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) oil, not standard vape juice. The majority admitted to it. The rest may have been reluctant to fess up since THC is the active ingredient in cannabis and is illegal in all three states.
The case of Adam Hergenreder is sadly typical. The 18-year-old from Illinois developed a fever, started vomiting and had trouble breathing after vaping a THC cartridge bought from a drug dealer. Recovering in hospital, he fears he will never be the same. ‘My lungs are like a 70-year-old’s,’ he said.