It was the arrival of the second man in his early 20s gasping for air that alarmed Dixie Harris, MD. Young patients rarely get so sick, so fast, with a severe lung illness, and this was her second case in a matter of days.
Then she saw three more patients at her Utah telehealth clinic with similar symptoms. They did not have infections, but all had been vaping. When Dr. Harris heard several teenagers in Wisconsin had been hospitalized in similar cases, she quickly alerted her state health department.
As patients in hospitals across the country combat a mysterious illness linked to e-cigarettes, federal and state investigators are frantically trying to trace the outbreaks to specific vaping products that, until recently, were virtually unregulated.
As of Aug. 22, 2019, 193 potential vaping-related illnesses in 22 states had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wisconsin, which first put out an alert in July, has at least 16 confirmed and 15 suspected cases. Illinois has reported 34 patients, 1 of whom has died. Indiana is investigating 24 cases.
Lung doctors said they had seen warning signs for years that vaping could be hazardous as they treated patients. Medically it seemed problematic since it often involved inhaling chemicals not normally inhaled into the lungs. Despite that, assessing the safety of a new product storming the market fell between regulatory cracks, leaving doctors unsure where to register concerns before the outbreak. The Food and Drug Administration took years to regulate e-cigarettes once a court determined it had the authority to do so.
“You don’t know what you’re putting into your lungs when you vape,” said Dr. Harris, a critical care pulmonologist. “It’s purported to be safe, but how do you know if it’s safe? To me, it’s a very dangerous thing.”
Off the radar
When e-cigarettes came to market about a decade ago, they fell into a regulatory no man’s land. They are not a food, not a drug, and not a medical device, any of which would have put them immediately in the FDA’s purview. And, until a few years ago, they weren’t even lumped in with tobacco products.
As a result, billions of dollars of vaping products have been sold online, at big-box retailers, and in corner stores without going through the FDA’s rigorous review process to assess their safety. Companies like Juul, Blu, and NJoy quickly established their brands of devices and cartridges, or pods. And thousands of related products are sold, sometimes on the black market, over the Internet, or beyond.
“It makes it really tough because we don’t know what we’re looking for,” said Ruth Lynfield, MD, the state epidemiologist for Minnesota, where several patients were admitted to the ICU as a result of the illness. She added that, if it turns out that the products in question were sold by unregistered retailers and manufacturers “on the street,” outbreak sleuths will have a harder time figuring out exactly what is in them.
With e-cigarettes, people can vape – or smoke – nicotine products, selecting flavorings like mint, mango, blueberry crème brûlée, or cookies and milk. They can also inhale cannabis products. Many are hopeful that e-cigarettes might be useful smoking cessation tools, but some research has called that into question.
The mysterious pulmonary disease cases have been linked to vaping, but it’s unclear whether there is a common device or chemical. In some states, including California and Utah, all of the patients had vaped cannabis products. One or more substances could be involved, health officials have said. The products used by several victims are being tested to see what they contained.
Because e-cigarettes aren’t classified as drugs or medical devices, which have well-established FDA databases to track adverse events, doctors say there has been no clear way to report and track health problems related to vaping products.
And this has apparently been the case for years.
Multiple doctors described seeing earlier cases of severe lung problems linked to vaping that were not officially reported or included in the current CDC count.
Laura Crotty Alexander, MD, a pulmonologist and researcher with the University of California, San Diego, said she saw her first case about 2 years ago. A young man had been vaping for months with the same device but developed acute lung injury when he switched flavors. She strongly suspected a link, but did not report the illness anywhere.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to report it, it’s that there’s no pathway” to do so, Dr. Alexander said.
She said she’s concerned that many physicians haven’t been asking patients about e-cigarette use and that there’s no way to document a case like this in the medical coding system.
John E. Parker, MD, of West Virginia University, Morgantown, said he saw his first patient with pneumonia tied to vaping in 2015. Doctors there were intrigued enough to report on the case at the annual meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians. Dr. Parker and his team didn’t contact a federal agency, and Dr. Parker said it was unclear whom to call.
Numerous other cases have been reported in medical journals and at professional conferences in the years since. The FDA’s voluntary system for reporting tobacco-related health problems included 96 seizures and only 1 lung ailment tied to e-cigarettes between April and June 2019. The system appears to be utilized most by concerned citizens, rather than manufacturers or health care professionals.
But several lung specialists said that due to the patchwork nature of regulatory oversight over the years, the true scope of the problem is yet to be identified.
“We do know that e-cigarettes do not emit a harmless aerosol,” said Brian King, PhD, MPH, a deputy director in the Office on Smoking and Health at the CDC in a call with media on Aug. 23 about the outbreak. “It is possible that some of these cases were already occurring but we were not picking them up.”