State declares health emergency over vaping

A woman exhales a puff of vapor from a Juul pen. Under intense scrutiny amid a wave of underage vaping, Juul is pushing into television with a multimillion-dollar campaign rebranding itself as a stop-smoking aid for adults trying to kick cigarettes.

ALBANY — A dozen New Yorkers required treatment for severe pulmonary disease in recent weeks after using nicotine or marijuana vaping products, prompting state officials to declare an emergency health threat and launch an inquiry.

Eight of the 12 cases were reported in western New York, while the other patients are from the Capital Region, Long Island and Westchester County, according to the state health department.

The suspected connection between lung disease and vaping warrants that a study be conducted into the long-term health effects from vaping, Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, said in a statement.

"While many people consider vaping to be a less dangerous alternative to smoking cigarettes, it is not risk free," Zucker acknowledged.

The New York patients, all of whom required hospital treatment, range in age from 18 to 49 years old.

Citing patient confidentiality laws, state officials declined to identify the home towns of those who have been treated for diseases linked to their use of vape products.

Officials also provided no descriptions of the specific products used by those patients, saying their names and types are part of the focus of the investigation.

The health department said it is sending information from its study to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control as well as health officials in other states responding to similar vape-related hospitalizations.

The state's advisory, issued to administrators of healthcare clinics and hospitals, states: "Providers should remain alert for potential cases among patients who present with progressive respiratory symptoms, especially in those without a history of respiratory illness."

It goes on to recommend that providers acquire from patients "a thorough substance use history," with close attention to inhalation drug use, "particularly vape products."

Niagara County's health director, Dan Stapleton, said vaping has become increasingly popular in his region, with teenagers picking up the habit at "an alarming rate."

"We think this is definitely a step in the right direction," Stapleton said of the health department study. "We're very worried about the increased use of these products by students."

Stapleton, the president of the Association of County Health Officials, said the new reports of vaping-related lung disease cases, including some tied to the inhalation of marijuana in concentrated form, bolsters the argument against ending New York's pot prohibition.

The New York patients treated for lung disease showed a range of symptoms, including shortness of breath, chest pain, coughing and vomiting.

In Delhi, Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond suggested that the Cuomo administration is sending contradictory signals by proposing the legalization of marijuana use while the health department warns about vaping of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — and nicotine.

"Vaping has become very prevalent in not just our local schools but at the college (the State University at Delhi) as well," said the sheriff, a staunch opponent of legal cannabis.

The New York study includes sending samples of the vaping products used by the ailing patients to the Wadsworth Center Laboratory near Albany for testing.

John Coppola, director of the New York Association of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers, suggested targeted marketing is one significant factor in the popularity of vaping among teens and young adults.

He suggested that any attempts to mislead the public regarding the health dangers of vaping products should be met with significant penalties.

Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation raising the purchase age for cigarettes and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21 years old. The higher age goes into effect Nov. 13.

Cuomo voiced optimism that the higher age will spare a generation of young New Yorkers from becoming addicted to tobacco products.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com .

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