Health officials pressure Beacon Hill to take action against vaping epidemic

BOSTON — The state of Massachusetts is currently investigating 46 possible cases of lung illness as a result of vaping.

Health officials now are pressuring lawmakers in Beacon Hill to take action against the emerging youth vaping epidemic.

Cases across the state have been increasing since officials have mandated doctors and hospitals to report any and all illnesses related to vaping.

Dr. Jonathan Winicokoff, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital says all it takes for kids to get addicted to vaping is one small nicotine pod.

"[A] dime sized pod has more nicotine than an entire pack of cigarettes," said Dr. Winicokoff. "It's devastating".

Dr. Winicokoff says he's been seeing patients with a variety of lung diseases, from asthma to extreme allergic reactions.

"That’s like swelling inside the lung and then your body can’t get any of the oxygen it needs for its vital tissues," said Dr. Winicokoff.

The problem has been growing across the nation, where the CDC has reported 530 confirmed cases and probable cases of vaping-linked lung injuries.

So far, eight people have died from vaping-related illnesses in seven different states.

Dr. Winicokoff says there have been four cases of vaping-related lung illnesses at MGH for children. Earlier this week, seven cases were reported at Boston Children's Hospital.

Along with other doctors in the state, Dr. Winicokoff is supporting state legislation to ban all flavored tobacco products, including mint and menthol. They say the flavors are the main culprits for getting kids hooked in the first place.

"We’re not saying ban tobacco," said Dr. Winicokoff. "We’re not saying ban electronic cigarettes. All we are saying is, take away the flavors that are attracting kids."

The biggest issue surrounding the vaping epidemic is what exactly is in the the cartidges people are smoking. While e-cigarettes have been around for years, only now are cases of vaping-related illnesses beginning to spike, and health officials want to know why.

Many teens and young adults have been purchasing cartidges from illegal vendors, even going as far as buying cartidges online from vendors in China or Vietnam, with little to no regulation or breakdown of the chemicals and solvents in the vape juice.

Popular e-cigarettes such as the JUUL have not fully disclosed the ingredients inside their vape juice. Recently, researchers have attempted to pinpoint exactly which components and solvents are responsible for making people sick, pointing to vitamin E acetate as one of the main culprits. While it is safe to be ingested, vitamin E could be harmful if vaporized.

THC cartridges sold at licensed dispensaries are usually made with terpenes from the cannabis sold by the strore, which is often a process done in-house, so the dispensary follows the entire process, from start to finish.

Local dispensaries such as Theory Wellness, Liberty Cannabis and CommCan have come forward and disclosed to medical patients and recreational users exactly what is in their cartidges and ensuring they are not being cut with chemicals such as vitamin E acetate and that they don't use any thickening agents.

Due to the increased scrutiny by the state on how dispensaries in Massachusetts operate, those who do manufacture THC or CBD cartidges have to be transparent about their process and what is inside their products, therefore significantly lowering the chances that legal marijuana cartidges could be making people sick.

Dr. Winicokoff says parents should contact legislators themselves if they want this flavor ban to pass.

Boston 25 News reached out to JUUL Labs for a comment on whether or not they support a flavor ban that includes mint and menthol. In a statement, a spokesperson said:

"We will review this proposal as we strongly agree with the need for aggressive category-wide action on flavored products. That is why we already stopped selling our non-tobacco/non-menthol based JUULpods to traditional retail stores, are fighting against counterfeit and compatible products made with unknown ingredients under unknown manufacturing standards, and will fully comply with local laws and the final FDA policy when effective. We will continue to combat youth usage, while supporting reasonable access to vapor products for adults looking to switch from combustible cigarettes."

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