Jordan: There is a lot of evidence that vaping is safer than smoking. But there is also a lot of evidence that people believe that enough to regard vaping as safe. Over the past six weeks, however, something very strange has been happening in the United States.
News Clip: Health Canada has issued a warning about the potential risk of pulmonary illnesses associated with vaping products. It comes as vaping related illnesses sweep across the US with more than 200 cases of mysterious illnesses and young people who’ve a pH See oil or nicotine. At least two Americans have died.
Jordan: It’s clear there’s a lot that we don’t know here. But what I keep coming back to is that there’s a lot we don’t know about vaping in general. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that we simply can’t know yet. So what is the mysterious illness? Why does the number of cases seem to be increasing almost daily? What do the victims have in common? And why has it so far only been found in the States? What are the Americans doing about it? And what should health Canada be watching for? Is this a case of some bad batches or some broken vapes Or is it the beginning of us realizing just how much we don’t know about vaping? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings and this is the big story. Carly Weeks is a health reporter at the Globe and Mail. Hi, Carly.
Jordan: Can you start by telling us with the U. S. Food and Drug Administration in the theater ministrations, I guess In general Ah said yesterday about vaping,
Carly: So yesterday the U. S. President came out and said, This is a huge problem. Vaping is taking over our young people and we need to do something very, very strong. So what he’s proposing is actually a pretty huge measure which is getting rid of all flavors except tobacco. So basically wiping all flavors of vape product off the market, leaving tobacco. And this is really key because flavors are basically one of the main draws for a lot of people, you know, they taste really good. They smell really good. Ah, lot of them are sort of fruit and candy flavored. So a lot of health experts have been saying for years Um hey, this is really bringing in young people like there’s a flavor that I often site. It’s called a unicorn puke, right? You know, I mean, that’s is that for adults.
Jordan: Like my little kid has toothpaste that tastes like bubble government stuff. Exactly what we used to make it more palatable.
Carly: Yes, kids like sweet.
Jordan: So they’re gonna enact this, at least proposing to enact this huge ban. Where has this sudden panic come from?
Carly: Yeah, you’re right. It is a huge panic. And this is actually after a couple of states have already moved to ban flavors like this has been building. And now this is This is huge. It’s hard to understate it. So what’s happened over the last number of weeks is that the U. S. Centers for Disease Control have been reporting numbers really high numbers of people that have fallen ill with a serious lung illness tied to vaping products. So by last count, it’s over. 450 Americans have been sick. Six people have died so far from this mysterious and serious lung illness. We don’t know what’s causing it. But what we do know is that vaping products are the common link between all of them.
Jordan: What do we know about what this disease looks like and how it manifests what it does to people.
Carly: So this disease, it starts with a lot of respiratory symptoms. So people you know who are, for the most part, otherwise young and healthy, they have a hard time breathing. They’re coughing. They’re wheezing a lot of shortness of breath. This is obviously very scary, right? So they go to the hospital. They in some cases, have been put on ventilators. They need supplemental oxygen, Ah, steroid treatments. And in some cases they’ve ended up dying. There’s not really any clear causes. We said They know that there’s no real an infectious agent involved, so it’s not like people are out there catching a virus. There’s something in the product. That’s the problem
Jordan: When you say the product, Do we know whether? And I’m not a vaping expert, I will qualify myself. But do we know whether that’s like what the substance that they are consuming with their Vape or the vaping apparatus itself?
Carly: You’ve hit on the key question in this whole thing, and this is why weeks in they still don’t have an answer. There’s a lot of different products involved. In some cases, people were modifying at home. They’re vaping products to, I guess, deliver perhaps a more potent version of whatever
Jordan: Sounds unwise.
Carly: It turns out that it probably is, Ah, lot of the people, and I think it’s a sizeable majority were vaping t h c? So that’s the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. So they have, like cannabis infused vaping products. These, for the most part, are probably not legal or, you know, in at least some of the cases, so they’re buying products that we’ve. We’ve been hearing that a lot of the products may be coming from the black market. So again, who knows what’s in these products? The weird thing, though, is that we haven’t seen these cases in Canada, the UK or other similar market. So I spoke to a health expert this week who suggested that there’s something going on specifically in the States. Is there a specific batch of products, something that’s going on with the things that are on the market there, You know, he seems to think that, yes, there’s something very specific happening there because otherwise we would have seen the same thing happening here now. That’s not to say we won’t see these illnesses here, so let’s, you know, not count Canada out just yet. But there’s some kind of contaminant, and they do believe that there is something that’s going on that’s going wrong with these products. So whether it is, some people have suggested it. Some sort of vitamin E that’s being added something in the T H C. We don’t yet know, but it’s very scary.
Jordan: So maybe considering there’s so many moving parts in the product, can you sort of just explain how vaping actually works?
Carly: Right? So you know your typical cigarette, you light it and there’s combustion involved. So there’s like an actual sort of, you know, fire element. With vaping, it’s a lot different. It’s a battery powered device there, often small and concealable. They look like cool like flash drive. Um, the battery heats up a liquid that then turns into a vapors. The liquid gets heated. It turns into an aerosol, which you can then inhale into your lungs. So it’s a lot different from tobacco cigarettes, which involved this burning. And it is the burning that makes the tobacco smoke so deadly because it forms and all of these thousands of chemicals that you then inhaled directly into your lungs or expose others around you, too. So this is why tobacco smoke is so deadly. Vaping is slightly different because there just aren’t as many chemicals involved. It’s not just doesn’t have that same cocktail. However, There are still plenty of, you know, volatile potentially cancer causing substances in that vapor. And so this is sort of, you know, while we talk about these very serious illnesses in the U. S. A lot of health experts in places like Canada are saying, Hey, let’s also just remind people of the fact that these are risk ease things. These aren’t harmless devices that people are vaping on.
Jordan: Well, vaping, at least when I remember it. Coming on the market as e cigarettes was designed like, kind of like Nicorette, right? Like as a way to quit.
Carly: Exactly. You’re exactly right. So it was developed a CZ, this important smoking cessation tool. It’s like a step down. You know you can use any cigarette. It will give you your nicotine fix, but it’s less deadly than tobacco. So then a few things happen, so one there’s a company called Jewel in the U. S. They’re the dominant player in the market there, And the reason why is they developed sort of a new generation of e cigarettes vaping product, where they deliver a very high concentration of nicotine that’s very palatable before this. If you have high nicotine in any cigarette, it was really, you know, would burn your throat. It would be uncomfortable. So you have high nicotine levels in Juul products. The company is also really great at marketing. They’ve got some fantastic looking devices. They look really cool. They’re really sleek. And so, while the company says, you know, we don’t market to kids and we don’t reach out to kids a lot of health experts say, Yeah, it doesn’t matter what you say because young people are using your products and so this is how we’ve sort of arrived at the situation we’re in today where a lot of young people are using them. They’re being exposed to nicotine for the first time. They’re not previous smokers and a lot of experts have pointed out, You know, these new e cigarettes are on the market. There’s another company, Imperial Tobacco, sells the brand VIPs there were not seeing a decrease in the number of people who are smoking. In fact, the number of people who are consuming these nicotine delivery products are It’s growing in Canada,
Jordan: And the last time we had you on the podcast, we talked about the attraction amongst teenagers and young adults. What has happened in terms of what you’re hearing both in the industry and in the health industry over the last six weeks as kind of the reports of this illness have become more prevalent, and we seem to hear new ones every day. And what is that doing to the conversation around it?
Carly: It’s ramped up substantially. It’s huge. I mean, you know, a lot of times we have a lot of these health issues that will pop up, and then they go away. This one is just getting louder and louder because it’s hitting people where they live. S O. You know, we’ve heard from Health Canada in recent months. You know, they’ve pledged to get rid of ads and they’ve pledged to have mandatory ingredient labeling on products and things like that. But the calls for them to do more and faster are growing louder by the day, and a lot of health groups are stepping up their efforts. I saw even this week, you know, the Ontario health minister said, she’s gonna look and see what they can do to get those messages out about vaping. But you know, there are also the government that legalized Vaping ads, right? So you know, there’s a lot of pressure that’s building, you know, the the U. S. Has now pulled the trigger, saying We’re gonna move forward with the flavor ban. That’s something that health groups here health experts say we need. And so that will be interesting to see now if Canada follows suit cause we often do follow the U. S.
Jordan: What’s health Canada said beyond, We don’t have this illness here yet.
Carly: You know, They’re warning people about, you know, to be vigilant and things like that, you know, warning people in general about potential risks of vaping. And you know, they have some tailored messages to people who say, you know, pregnant women or things like that. You know, the dangers and the addictive nature of nicotine. But by and large, the consensus is that Canada has been a lot softer and a lot slower to respond in the US, you know, in the U. S. Ah, the former director of the F D A. Came out and was really strong, calling this a use epidemic months, and I think even more than a year ago they’ve been very strong and very vocal. Now a lot of people have criticized them for also being slow. I mean, we’re only just now getting in commitment to ban flavors, and that’s just a commitment. It’s not actually happening here in Canada. It’s just been so much slower and it’s interesting we’ve the election campaign is just kicked off. We haven’t yet heard from a party, you know, take really taking this on. So you know, we’ll see where it goes in Canada. But I think people like the public want a lot more than what we’re seeing.
Jordan: What are the companies themselves saying about the illness?
Carly: As far as, the companies go some of the messages and I’m actually interviewing some of them later today. So the messaging that I’ve seen so far is that you know, these are not products that would be legally purchased. A lot of them are coming from the black market. That does appear to be true. For the most part, they also you know, a lot of their messaging just right now is very much we don’t market to kids were working with you guys to make sure you guys being governments and health groups Thio keep these products out of the hands of young people. And I’ve been, you know, my inbox is getting sort of filled up with various players in the industry who are reaching out to say, Hey, if you’re doing a story on these vaping illnesses talkto us, we’re part of like the battle t keep kids healthy and keep kids safe on the flip side. You know, I’ve put this to a lot of different health groups, so you know, they’re saying all the right things. They’re committed, you know, they’ve got website set up Thio Combat Youth Vaping and they say, Okay, well, then let’s see them take away their flavors. Let’s see them take down the abs.
Jordan: Maybe this is a dumb question, but given the paranoia of the last little while, what assurances do we have that this is really safer in the long run than smoking because that’s the way I’ve kind of thought about it is Look, if you’re going to smoke, you know what it’s doing to you, right? Like there’s no mystery anymore. There’s no debating it. It’s factual. Whereas this might be healthier in some ways because you’re not actively burning it. Yeah, but it seems like, especially because this is the second time in three months we’ve had you on the bug has that there’s a lot we don’t know.
Carly: Yes, and not a dumb question. In fact, this is the question that I think everyone needs toe ask themselves and to think about, you know. And actually, this week, Jewel in the United States was given a warning letter from the FDA for actually claiming that it’s safer than cigarettes and, you know, without evidence. You know, there’s a lot of health organizations, including Health Canada, this hate. You know, these vaping products are safer than cigarettes. But the FDA saying you can’t market yourselves that way until you show us the clinical studies and to show us the proof. You know, the proof is in the pudding. So, you know, there is this really attention. These products were brought on the market. The whole idea behind them is we’re gonna help smokers quit. But the reality has failed at this point to sort of bear fruit because now we have a use epidemic. You know they’re there. And I’ve talked to some people who say a lot of former smokers are now going back to eat there picking up vaping products for the first time. And they’re now addicted to these vaping products. So the thing is, nicotine is addictive. Young people exposed to nicotine, it can do some serious things to your brain that can cause short or perhaps even some long term changes in, you know, focus, memory, attention, all of those issues That is serious, you know, because that your brain develops until about 25. So you’re exposing it to high levels of nicotine. You know, we don’t really know this is a living experiment, and we’re it’s kind of a scary one. There’s other issues as well. What are you doing to your lungs? Into your heart? There’s some studies already that have shown that vaping products are tied to some respiratory issues to some heart issues. Aside from these mysterious illnesses that are breaking out in the U. S. We’re talking these long term things. This is why a lot of health advocates have been saying for years. We’re dialing back the clock. We’re going back to the original fight we had with big tobacco, and you can kind of see now where they’re coming from.
Jordan: Well, this is, I mean, a confession that I probably shouldn’t make to a health reporter. But I do occasionally smoke a cigarette. Um, and my concern with switching to vaping products, which I have thought about in the past, is that I would consume so much more of them because I would feel like they were safer and my throat wouldn’t hurt. And like if you smoke a cigarette now, like I said, you know what you’re doing to yourself. You feel guilt about it, et cetera, et cetera. But if you start to feel like, oh, this is okay, I could just and I see people I know who used to smoke who now puff these things. Yeah, all day.
Carly: Right. And that’s the thing. What exactly? Exposing yourself to Let’s not kid ourselves. There are cancer causing chemicals in the vapor. There are volatile organic compounds, super fine particles, a whole bunch of other things that are in there, we don’t know. And the regulations mean that we can to know right now, you know, And it is a bit of a mind boggling situation that we’re in. It’s something that is new, something that poses a risk. There’s not enough that’s being done. According to most of the experts, pretty much all of the experts I’ve spoken to and there’s just consensus that, you know, yeah, we’re in a bit of, ah, living experiment. Right now we’re years down the line, we’re going to know exactly what some of these health effects are. And right now, we’re just kind of walking around, you know, consuming these things. Not exactly sure of what is going on.
Jordan: What happens if we can’t figure out what this illnesses and we keep seeing more cases?
Carly: Well, in the United States, they’ve already started telling people just stopped beeping, You know, they’re suggesting it right now. You know, there are ordering people saying, Hey, you know what? Maybe you should think about not vaping right now. That’s a pretty strong message to be sending you know, and You know, people are scared, though, you know, you buy a vape product and whatever it is in there, is it the pen? Is it the cartridge that has the Vape juice? You know, we don’t know, but they’re telling people like that scary enough that they’re literally telling people not to Vape. So, you know, should we be sending that message to more people? I mean, health groups would certainly say yes unless you’re trying to quit smoking. There’s no reason that you should be vaping anyway. You know, that’s the sort of the bottom line message, but, you know, is that the cat’s out of the bank here. You know, we have got a huge problem tons of you through doing it, and we just simply haven’t done the due diligence to know what they’re getting themselves into.
Jordan: How fluid is this situation right now? It seems nuts for this. A big industry to just be kind of like hanging here trying to figure out what’s going on.
Carly: Yeah, and it is. And it is a huge industry, you know, like we’re talking giant giant companies, you know, Imperial Tobacco, obviously putting its money behind this fight product and we have Jewell, whose own 1/3 ish by Altria, one of the biggest tobacco makers in the world. These are big business models. Lot of some of the companies have said We’re getting out of the cigarette business and we’re actually gonna focus our efforts on these sort of vapor type products, So there’s a lot for them to lose you. No company wants to be hurting people for the most part, right, Like I mean, that’s pretty much a standard operating practice. You don’t want to be killing your customer.
Jordan: Well, they’re moving to this direction because I think it’s safer if
Carly: they think it’s safer. I mean an evidence to show that it is safe. But it’s now again. This is you know, when you expose Ah whole bunch of people to something and these problems start to pop up, you know who could have seen this coming? I guess we all should have. Perhaps, you know, like that. We’ve been hearing these warning signs for a long time. No one could have predicted that there would be these these outbreaks of acute lung illnesses linked to some compound in these products. But this is why health experts have been saying for years. Regulate these things do more because this is putting people’s health at risk.
Jordan: Thanks, Carly.
Jordan: Carly Weeks is a health reporter at The Globe and Mail. That was the big story podcast. You can always find all our episodes at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us to chat with or yell at on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn. Of course, as you know, we are wherever you get podcasts. And that includes Apple and Google and Spotify and Sea Monkey as well as Clementine’s. Claire Broussard is the lead producer of The Big Story, Ryan Clark and Stephanie Phillips or our associate producers, Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor. I’m Jordan, Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening Great weekend, and we’ll talk Monday.
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