"If you don't smoke or vape, please don't start. But if you do, I urge you to get help and stop immediately," warned 16-year-old Logan Kran.
Kran encouraged the public when delivering a speech at the American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, after being released from the pediatric intensive care unit, where he nearly died from vaping-related lung injuries.
After the first official vaping-related death was reported in August 2019, the so-called “youth vaping crisis” spread across the U.S. Most recent CDC data reported 2,051 cases of illness and 39 deaths resulting from the use of THC and nicotine-based vaping devices, which are growing in prominence particularly among teens and young adults.
Vaping is highly prominent on the UW-Madison campus, despite the “smoke-free campus” policy being expanded to include vapes in 2016.
However, it is too early to tell if the university specifically is significantly increasing the rates of vaping in Wisconsin.
“We don’t have any data to say university is driving this issue,” UW- Madison Chief Health Officer Dr. William Kinsey said. “We know that rates [of vaping] are increasing in both middle and high school at a precipitous rate, so you could, with conjecture, guess that these rates are going up on campus as well.”
Dr. Vivek Balasubramaniam, a pediatric pulmonologist at the American Family Children’s Hospital, has seen three cases of vaping-related illnesses that required hospitalization.
Wisconsin is one of the 16 states having reported 50 or more cases of vape-related lung injury, according to the CDC. However, Balasubramaniam believes this has more to do with doctors being more proactive in recognizing pulmonary issues as being potentially vaping-related than vaping being more prominent in Wisconsin compared to other states.
“I think that the state of Wisconsin has had physicians that are recognizing respiratory distress, looked deeper and asking questions about other associated behaviors,” he said. “We’ve started to notice a trend that severe cases [of lung injury] were related to people who were vaping. Most pulmonologists were not asking teenagers if they were using vaping products.”
Some UW-Madison students think that despite rising cases of illness and deaths related to vaping, those who do vape are not likely to change their habits.
“If someone wants to get high off THC they’ll do it anyways, they don’t really care,” freshman Alex Baraban said. “They think, ‘Oh, it won’t happen to me. I’m not gonna be the one that does that the people I get it from are reliable.’”
One of the main causes of vaping-related illnesses and deaths is the use of illegal THC products. Given that recreational marijuana use is illegal in most states, users and especially teenagers tend to get THC cartridges from the black market.
Because they are not regulated, these products are sometimes laced with dangerous substances, such as vitamin E acetate, which is harmful to the lungs when heated and ingested. The growing awareness of this danger has made some consumers more conscious of the ingredients in the THC cartridges they buy.
“So far in the interviews of the people who have been diagnosed, it is true that the great majority of them have bought their supplies off the black market,” Kinsey said.
While it is still widely unknown which specific vape and cartridge brands have been selling products containing harmful substances, public health officials from Illinois and Wisconsin partnered with the CDC to find cartridges distributed by the underground THC company “Dank Vapes” were most commonly used by patients before developing the disease.
“I try to make sure other people are as aware as possible about the sort of red flags when it comes to purchasing a cartridge,” said Andrew Janeway, an employee at the downtown Madison smoke and vape store, The Pipefitter. “If you’re not able to purchase it in a licensed, authorized retailer, make sure that you know that that’s the real brand, because a lot of these are just people selling cartridges with the stickers from the brand that are just totally knock-off.”
Janeway said they have not noticed a definitive drop in sales since the crisis began, but rather more reluctance from customers buying vape products.
One reason the crisis has affected teenagers and even children so significantly is that vape products are often marketed in kid-friendly flavors that overshadow the actual addictive chemicals they contain. In a survey about teen vape use, 80 percent of respondents thought that flavored e-cigarette products did not actually contain nicotine, Balasubramaniam said.
“Nicotine is more addictive for adolescent brain than adult brain,” he said. “Adolescents and young adults have higher tolerance for nicotine than adults.”
Until the crisis is managed and more research has been done into the health effects of vaping, the CDC and UW-Madison health services recommend that students stop vaping.
“We’re really concerned for students in both the short and long run,” Kinsey said. “We’re recommending that students not vape and be careful about buying black market products, as they seem to be most likely to cause problems.”
In response to the growing crisis, the Wisconsin State Legislature will discuss next week proposed legislation to outlaw the sale of nicotine and tobacco products to those under age 21.
“I would strongly endorse tobacco 21 legislation because of the effects it can have on the growing adolescent brain,” Balasubramaniam said.
Despite these concerns, the business of dealing vapes on campus remains prominent. However, Janeway recommends that students who do choose to continue vaping take extra precautions and are careful about who they buy products from.
“If you are using a cartridge, do your best to ensure that it does not contain vitamin E acetate, and ask the person that you’re buying it from what’s in it. If they can’t tell you, leave,” Janeway said. “You can’t throw a stone on campus without finding someone who will sell you a cartridge.”