BALTIMORE — The Maryland Department of Health and the Maryland Poison Center at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, on Wednesday, Aug. 28, launched an investigation into e-cigarette-related illnesses.
The investigation comes just days after an Illinois resident died, reportedly due to respiratory issues caused by e-cigarette use, or “vaping,” as it’s more commonly known.
While Maryland has not reported any vaping-related deaths to date, five individuals in the state during the past two months have reported developing “severe lung illness” after using an e-cigarette, according to MDH.
The five non-fatal Maryland cases are part of nearly 200 reported incidents of vaping-related illness in 22 states between June and August.
The patients, who all required hospitalization, reported experiencing shortness of breath, pain while breathing or coughing, fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
MDH’s investigation, which will be conducted in partnership with county departments of health, aims to determine a link between the respiratory symptoms and specific vaping devices, substances or brands.
Patients across the U.S. who experienced the symptoms reported using a variety of vaping products, including those containing marijuana and THC and those containing nicotine.
MDH Deputy Secretary for Public Health Frances B. Phillips said MDH is “taking this issue seriously.”
“[We’re] working with local health departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration to identify anyone who may be experiencing similar symptoms,” Phillips said.
Queen Anne’s County Department of Health Deputy Health Officer Jennie M. Burris called the spike in reports of vaping-related respiratory symptoms across the U.S. and in Maryland a “public health concern.”
Burris attributed the spike to people believing vapes are a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes. She said anybody who has used an e-cigarette is just as “susceptible to these severe lung illnesses.”
“I think now that [vaping] has been being done for a while, we’re seeing the harm and that’s what’s happening,” she said. “Some people, I think, use [vapes] as a substitute for smoking cigarettes thinking it’s harmless. But now we’re seeing that it has its consequences to someone’s health, as well.”
Burris said her department, as well as other Eastern Shore health departments, will be working with MDH to conduct surveillance on vaping-related illnesses. She said Queen Anne’s County “always takes [MDH’s] direction on how we can help our public.”
Burris also emphasized the importance of e-cigarette use prevention and education, which she said is the key to minimizing the impact of such public health threats.
Director of the MDH Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Dawn Berkowitz warned consumers to stay away from e-cigarettes and vapes.
Berkowitz said, because there is “so much we don’t know about the contents of these products, the best way to keep yourself safe is to not use e-cigarettes or vapes.”
“We know quitting is hard, but there are resources available to help,” Berkowitz said. “Trained professionals are available 24/7 to help you stop vaping or smoking.”
E-cigarettes have been around in the U.S. since the early 2000s. As of 2016, the Food and Drug Administration expanded its regulatory power over e-cigarettes and vapes to include their liquid contents, as well as other device components, according to the FDA’s website.
In 2018, the FDA found that 3.62 million middle and high school students were e-cigarette users — a 78% increase among high schoolers and a 48% increase among middle schoolers from 2017.
MDH is urging medical providers caring for patients with unexplained serious respiratory illness to inquire about a history of recent e-cigarette use or vaping, and to report suspected cases to their local health department.
For free help to stop using these devices or any tobacco product, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW, or visit Free Quit Smoking Classes and Support at https://www.aahealth.org/quit-smoking-classes-support-programs.