Demonstrators at the Massachusetts State House protest against the state’s four-month ban of all vaping product sales in Boston, Massachusetts, US, October 3 2019. Picture: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER
Demonstrators at the Massachusetts State House protest against the state’s four-month ban of all vaping product sales in Boston, Massachusetts, US, October 3 2019. Picture: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER

Washington — The death toll in the US from illnesses linked to e-cigarette use has risen to at least 19, health authorities say, as more than 1,000 others have suffered lung injuries probably linked to vaping.

Officials have yet to identify the cause for the outbreak, which dates back to March, and are pursuing multiple lines of investigation.

A report by clinicians in North Carolina in September pointed to the inhalation of fatty substances from aerosolised oils, but a new study by the Mayo Clinic published this week found patients’ lungs had been exposed to noxious fumes.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Thursday that 18 deaths in 15 states have now been positively linked to vaping, from a total of 1,080 cases of people sickened — a jump of 275 since last week. Connecticut officials also announced the first death in the state, bringing the total to at least 19.

The CDC attributes the sharp increase to a combination of new patients becoming ill in the past two weeks and recent reporting of previously identified patients.

“I think we really have the feeling right now that there may be a lot of different, nasty things in e-cigarette or vaping products, and they may cause different harms in the lung,” Anne Schuchat, a senior official with the CDC said in a call with reporters.

Among a group of 578 patients interviewed on substances they had used, 78% reported using tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive substance of marijuana, with or without nicotine products. Another 37 % reported exclusive use of THC products, and 17 % said they had only used products containing nicotine.

About 70% of patients are male, and 80% are under 35 years old.

Skyrocketing use

E-cigarettes have been available in the US since 2006. It is not clear whether the outbreak is only happening now — or if there were cases earlier that were wrongly diagnosed.

Initially conceived as a smoking cessation device, e-cigarette use has skyrocketed among teens, with preliminary official data for 2019 showing more than a quarter of high school students using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

E-cigarettes were, until recently, perceived as a less harmful alternative to smoking because they do not contain the 7,000 chemicals in cigarettes, dozens of which are known to cause cancer.

Only one case of lung injury has been reported outside of the US, making the outbreak more mysterious still. Canadian authorities said in September that a youth had been hospitalised, but so far no other countries have reported anything similar.

Public and political opinion appears to be hardening, however, with the Trump administration announcing in September that it would, in the coming months, ban flavoured e-cigarette products, which are particularly attractive to young people.

India has issued an outright ban on all e-cigarette products, as has the US state of Massachusetts.

AFP