Editor's note: The Washington Post published this editorial on Sept. 10.
A public health crisis underscores the urgency of coming to grips with the dangers and benefits of vaping. There are still more questions than answers about the electronic devices that vaporize fluids in an alternative to the known hazards of burning tobacco, but both the immediate crisis and the longer-term regulatory and health issues suggest much more scrutiny needs to be given to vaping, and especially to the health risks for young people.
Federal and state health authorities are investigating 450 cases in 33 states of lung illness among people who have used e-cigarette products – devices, liquids, refill pods or cartridges. Five deaths have occurred. There are no signs of infectious disease; more likely, the illnesses stem from exposure to a chemical substance. Many patients report having used e-cigarette products with liquids that contain cannabinoid, a class of diverse compounds stemming from substances in marijuana, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it does not yet know what is causing the sicknesses.
Getting to the bottom of this is an obvious priority. The practice of vaping has so many techniques that it is possible an illicit compound is the culprit – a contaminant, an additive or perhaps some home-brew methods. Vaping has been around for some years and until this summer had not caused a cluster of lung illnesses; nor has vaping caused illness in Britain, where it is tightly regulated. The warnings of the CDC and Food and Drug Administration should be heeded: Young people should not use vaping products, nor adults who do not currently use tobacco, and if you do vape, do not buy vaping products off the street.
From the start, vaping was seen as an alternative that would help smokers kick the habit, especially those for whom patch, gum and drug therapy did not work. If continued research reinforces the validity of vaping for this purpose, it will have public-health benefits for a specific population that should be considered.
But everyone should be alarmed about the rapid growth in popularity of vaping among teenagers and young people. The FDA has taken big steps to counter this danger, and it must maintain its aggressive effort against abuse. There is no reason vaping products should be available in bubble-gum flavor except to induce young people who are most at risk. The FDA sent a warning letter on Monday to the most popular vaping manufacturer, Juul Labs, complaining the company has made claims in school presentations that its products are less dangerous than tobacco without an appropriate FDA order. The FDA must remain vigilant against marketing to and use of vaping by young people. Overall, this is a complex problem of science, business, technology, culture and public health. Vaping began with very little regulation. Whatever the outcome of the current spate of illness, it is now clear that in the public interest, it must be rigorously scrutinized and controlled.