Yakima Valley health experts have a message for youth: Stop vaping.
Roughly 450 possible cases of vaping-related illnesses across 33 states have been identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since the start of the year. Many of the patients have been teenagers.
The specific cause remains unknown. Health officials have been zeroing in on certain lung illnesses linked to patients who had vaped within three months, and doctors report illnesses resembling an injury from breathing in a caustic substance.
Deaths have occurred in Oregon, California, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota.
U.S. health officials have repeatedly called for people to stop vaping until the cause is identified.
Anecdotal evidence shows there could be a rising problem here, too, said John Zambito, an emergency medicine physician at Astria Regional Medical Center in Yakima.
“I don’t know if I can definitively say that there’s a correlation that I’ve been able to pinpoint, but we have seen quite a bit of what are being diagnosed as pneumonia in young people, and so my suspicion is that there probably is a correlation that we just haven’t been able to nail down yet,” he said.
These lung-related illnesses have been on the rise for roughly six months, Zambito said, and have been common among patients in their late teens and early 20s.
“We’ve had almost a wow factor looking at an X-ray, thinking, ‘Wow, that’s not what I expected looking at the person,’” he said. “There’s been some pretty ugly pneumonia, looking at the X-ray. We just haven’t been able to pinpoint things.”
Teen vaping increases
Nationally and locally, teen vape product use has been on a dramatic rise, even as cigarette smoking among youths has declined.
Roughly 22 percent of high school seniors in Yakima County reported using vaporized tobacco products in the last 30 days when surveyed in 2018, according to the state Healthy Youth Survey. That survey found that 6 percent of county youth smoked cigarettes.
Statewide, vape use among eighth-graders increased from 6 percent in Washington in 2016 to 10 percent last year. Rates among 10th-graders similarly increased from 13 percent to 21 percent in the same time frame, while use among seniors grew from 20 percent to 30 percent in 2018.
Experts attribute the high rate of vaping in part to messaging that often claims vape products — aerosol-inhaling devices often containing nicotine — are safer than cigarettes. Proponents of vape products say vaping can help cigarette smokers quit, while those opposed cite the growing rate of youth nicotine use after years of declining youth smoking rates.
Cigarettes are one of the most dangerous things a person can consume, said Julia Krolikowski, a prevention specialist at Educational Service District 105, an agency that provides support to regional school districts.
“It’s not hard to make something safer,” she said, saying cigarettes and vape products are both harmful.
“Some vape products have traces of formaldehyde. That’s dangerous,” she said. “That’s what’s used to preserve body parts. You use that in your science class.”
They also contain nicotine. Nicotine consumption negatively impacts brain development and impulse control among youth, she said.
Zambito of Astria said that patients he speaks with often don’t understand the dangerous components of vape products they’re consuming, and the cause of the rising number of lung illnesses isn’t clear.
“A lot of the data out there is (showing) that it’s young people who are getting sick and dying, and it’s difficult to treat something that we don’t fully understand either, from the medical side of things.”
At Yakima-based Evergreen Vape and Glass, recent health warnings from the CDC have not impacted vape product sales, said Saul Valencia, one of the shop’s co-owners. “Juice,” or the liquid used in vapes, is a small part of his business, he said. He expects a new tax on vape products going into effect in October in Washington likely will have a larger effect than the health scare.
“I’m pretty sure there’s millions of people who vape, and I’m pretty sure if there was an issue, people would be getting hurt left and right,” Valencia said. “There’s a lot more accidents of people smoking cigarettes than vaping, that’s for sure.”
While Holly Tull, manager of respiratory care at Virginia Mason Memorial hospital in Yakima, said there were no reported vaping-related illnesses so far at Memorial, she said the situation unfolding nationally clearly debunks that vaping is safer.
“(Vaping is) absolutely not better than cigarettes,” she said. “These are killing kids in their 20s now, versus they used to live till their 40s and 60s. … Which is safer?”
State lawmakers have already responded to concerns of youth use. In January, a new law will go into effect raising the minimum age to purchase vape products and tobacco from 18 to 21 years old.
Already, youth far younger than the legal age are using vape products, making it important for parents to start having conversations with their kids at increasingly young ages, said Krolikowski.
“We want to make sure we’re reaching kids before they start vaping,” she said, suggesting fourth grade as an appropriate age to speak with children about the dangers.
“Talk now, talk often.”