Is Vancouver Headed for an Outbreak of Vaping-Related Illnesses?

The United States is currently experiencing a vaping crisis. U.S. health officials have reported that there have been eight recorded deaths and at least 530 cases of severe respiratory diseases—with most believed to be associated with the heavy use of vaping products like Juuls and e-cigarettes. In the majority of these vape-related cases, patients have reported symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, lipoid pneumonia and mild to moderate gastrointestinal disorders.

New York alone has received over 30 reports of severe pulmonary illnesses from those who were believed to be using a vaping product. In response to these health scares, the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, announced that his administration is pushing for a health ban on flavored e-cigarettes.

The Washington Post reported that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found chemical oils derived from a Vitamin E substance in the majority of cannabis vape samples from New York patients. Despite this evidence, American health officials have yet to attribute the exact cause of all these cases. There isn’t one specific vaping device or substance that has been identified as the root cause of these illnesses, but there does appear to be a strong correlation between many of these respiratory issues and the use of vapes purchased from the black market.

The current American vape health crisis has become a global story that has now drawn the attention of many countries around the world where vaping has become more frequent.

In 2018, e-cigarettes were legalized in Canada, and this year the government has approved the sales of vaping related products in legal marijuana shops.

Research has shown that American youth have been the most affected by the rise of vaping. Time Magazine reported that in 2018, 30 percent of American 12th-graders had vaped nicotine at least once in the past year.

But youth vaping has not only grown in the U.S. University of Waterloo professor, David Hammond, found that vaping increased by a whopping 74 percent from 2017 to 2018 in Canada amongst 16-19 year olds. The Globe and Mail also reported that after nicotine-containing e-cigarettes were legalized, the number of Canadian teens who vaped doubled compared to the previous year.

In response to the U.S. vaping outbreak, the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) has called for provinces to increase the minimum age to 21 for the sale of tobacco and vaping products. The CCS and the Canadian Paediatric Society have demanded immediate government action regarding the steady increase of youth vaping in Canada.

On September 18, Canada saw it’s first reported vape-related illness. An Ontario teenager was transported to the intensive care unit and consequently put on life-support due to their daily use of e-cigarettes. The teen was later released from the hospital and now is in stable condition. Some have wondered if this is just the first of many vape-related illnesses that Canada will see.

Dr. Kelley Lee, an internationally renowned global health expert and Director of Global Health at Simon Fraser University, told Vancouver Magazine that this “recent outbreak of severe lung illnesses in the US highlights how much we simply do not know about the long-term impacts of vaping products on human health.” Dr. Lee asserts that despite this lack of knowledge, the federal and provincial governments have allowed these products to flood the market.

E-cigarettes were legalized with the intent of being a tool in lowering the use of traditional cigarettes, but Dr. Lee believes that a large number of non-smokers are taking up vaping—thus new generations of nicotine addicts are being created. “The federal and provincial governments have decided to treat these products differently from traditional tobacco products. The result is a boom in the use of these products.” 

Dr. Lee, whose current research focuses on analyzing globalization and the tobacco industry, argues that Health Canada’s current regulations are inadequate in regards to the marketing and promotion of vaping products.

“The current regulations are based on the assumption that smokers need ready access to these products and that this is achieved by making them as widely available as possible,” says Dr. Lee, while adding, “the problem is that this is also making them widely available to non-smokers including young people.”

Dr. Lee is arguing for an immediate ban on vape flavours like bubblegum, fruit and colas, which she believes are being designed to appeal to children and youth: “Tobacco companies themselves have admitted in internal documents to the use of such flavours to hook new a generation of kids on their products. We need to learn from this.”

The medical community remains conflicted about whether vapes do in fact offer a healthier alternative to cigarettes. Dr. Chris Carlsten, the Head of Respiratory Medicine at UBC, notes that while there is some evidence, it’s by no means clear-cut. “We really shouldn’t consider [vaping] as a routine recommendation because there are other products that don’t involve inhaling anything that are used to substitute the nicotine in [an edible] form—these are proven products that work well and is being overshadowed because of the hype and the advertising around vaping.” 

Dr. Lee stresses that marketing strategies have been used to make people think that these vaping products are harmless. “It is really important to understand that, despite their name, vaping products do not actually produce a vapour.”

Vapes don’t burn like cigarettes—these devices operate primarily through heating a liquid substance (vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol) into an aerosol, which users then inhale into their lungs.

“The bottom line is that the government has licensed products before it knows how safe or harmful they really are. This is simply dangerous,” says Dr. Lee.