City To Vapers: Stop Or You May Get Sick

Stop all kinds of vaping, THC and nicotine products included, because they could make you sick, city officials warned Monday.

“The outbreak does not just involve products with THC bought on the black market,” said Sarah Moyer, the city’s director for the Department of Public Health and Wellness. “Investigators have not been able to narrow down the cause of this very serious lung injury to any single or group of vaping products. Right now, we can’t say that any vaping products are safer to use and don’t cause this lung condition.”

LEO reported last week that a black market for illegal THC vapes is thriving in the city, as the police have seized 35,756 illegal THC vape cartridges since the beginning of the year. Black market THC vape cartridges are of particular concern to advocates because they are unregulated, and therefore, it’s impossible to know what’s contained in them.

Most cases, 77%, of a serious vaping-related lung illness, which 805 people have contracted nationwide, have been linked to THC vape cartridge use so far, although 57% of those affected have also reported using nicotine e-cigarettes. (36% have reported exclusive THC use, while 16% have reported only nicotine use).

So far, one lung illness case has been confirmed in Kentucky, which has been linked to a modified nicotine vape system, according to the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Twenty cases are still under investigation, three have been labeled “probable” and two were ruled out. One case under investigation is in Louisville.

The specific solutions that city officials and Kentucky health experts proposed for addressing the lung illness and youth vaping singled out nicotine e-cigarettes only.

But, Moyer said that smokers who switched to vaping to quit cigarettes should not return to cigarettes. Instead, she advised that they sign up for free Stop Smoking classes from her department. The public can get started by calling 574-STOP.

Mayor Greg Fischer said the city supports a proposed federal ban on flavored e-cigarettes to curb teen vaping, although e-cigarette advocates have told LEO that they fear such a measure would create a black market for nicotine vapes.

Like THC carts, e-cigarettes are also not regulated by the FDA for contents or testing, health officials said. But, as of June 2019, the federal agency does require e-cigarette makers to register their establishment, submit a list of products and submit ingredient listings. The FDA has conducted 1,200 inspections of vape shops since 2016, too.

Fischer said it may take the city, council members and legislators working together to address vaping, including the vaping of THC cartridges, but he told LEO no plans are concrete yet.

“We’re evaluating what our options are,” he said. “Obviously, the best thing would be for the state to take an action on this. Some of the actions we would like to take as a city we’re pre-empted by state law from doing that.”

One possibility would be requiring Louisville stores to obtain a license to sell tobacco products, he said. Fischer said he supported all potential solutions discussed at the press conference, which included agenda items that the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky plans to advocate for in the coming legislative session.

Those goals include creating an excise tax for e-cigarettes equivalent to the state’s tax on regular cigarettes, increasing funding prevention and cessation and increasing the age to buy e-cigarettes to 21 from 18, according to Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation.

Jefferson County Public Schools is already tackling e-cigarette use by students. It has launched an anti-vaping campaign called Vaping Equals for middle and high school health classes.

Most THC vape cartridges linked to the lung illness have contained Vitamin E acetate, according to the FDA, a thickening agent that illegal cart producers use to stretch their supply of THC oil or to make their product seem more potent.

But Aruni Bhatnagar, a professor of medicine at UofL who studies vaping and who has talked with federal officials, said that 20% to 25% of the lung illness cases have not been linked to any abnormal vape products.

“And so there may be something intrinsically harmful in the e-cigarettes themselves,” he said.

Vaping advocates have argued that some of those who have fallen sick might have been reticent to admit to vaping THC.

Regardless, Louisville has been at the forefront of addressing the potential health effects of vaping, as Fischer pointed out at the press conference. In 2017, the city banned vaping in indoor public places and workplaces, measures that cities such as Columbus, Ohio are only now considering.

“But it’s clear that we have more to do to protect the health of our children and the health of our community,” Fischer said.