Three Mobile County teenagers have been hospitalized for lung illnesses doctors believe may be associated with the use of e-cigarettes and other vaping products, which has local officials concerned the national “epidemic” of teenage vaping is starting to hit a little too close to home.
Susan Stiegler, assistant health officer at the Mobile County Health Department (MCHD), first disclosed the local cases during an event Sept. 13 — less than a month after state officials began asking healthcare providers to report any pulmonary illnesses they believe might be linked to vaping.
“So far, there have been eight reported cases of possible vaping-related illness throughout the state, including three from Mobile County reported just last week,” Stiegler said. “All three were admitted to the hospital, and one was admitted to the intensive care unit. All three were in their late teenage years.”
Stiegler said that was all the information health officials could share on the local cases, citing privacy laws, but their confirmation comes on the heels of federal reports of an unidentified outbreak of lung illnesses that medical professionals believe may be linked to the use of unspecified vaping products.
According to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been more than 400 cases of various lung illnesses across 33 states reported in recent months — a sudden outbreak that has been linked to at least seven deaths, though none of those were reported from Alabama.
So far, public health officials on the local and national level haven’t established what exactly might be causing these vaping-related respiratory illnesses, though a number of cases nationally have involved counterfeit or black-market products and patients who vaped marijuana oils and CBD products.
Regardless of what the exact cause is, local healthcare providers and elected officials say they’re still concerned about teenage vaping, which has increased dramatically in Alabama over the last two years.
According to a survey Stiegler cited from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than a quarter of high school students in the Yellowhammer State reported using e-cigarette products between 2017 and 2018. At the Pulmonary Associates of Mobile, Jessica Brock, a certified nurse practitioner, said some of those students have been showing up to her office with coughing, breathing problems and even serious respiratory illnesses.
“This is changing our patient demographics,” she said. “Historically, we work with patients in our office after years of smoking traditional cigarettes or other occupational exposures, but we’re seeing a significant younger population with far less exposure having more serious, irreversible lung damage.”
Brock made those comments during an event held by Mobile’s Drug Education Council last week. It was also attended by Reps. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, and Shane Stringer, R-Citronelle, who sponsored a bill earlier this year that applied new statewide regulations to all vaping products.
As Lagniappe has reported, the Stringer-Drummond Vaping Act aligns e-cigarettes with other tobacco products in the state by putting restrictions on how businesses advertise them and prohibiting their sale to anyone under 19.
The law took effect Aug. 1, but some legislators believe more needs to be done.
“As for me, I think we need to go further with this bill until we ban vaping products in the state of Alabama,” Drummond said. “We’ve got to go far enough to protect our children from using not only vape products, but also tobacco products, because this is their health and welfare we’re talking about.”
Stringer seemed to agree but stopped short of supporting an all-out ban. While he said he was happy with the work that’s already been done, Stringer also told the crowd he caught one of his own children with a vaping device after as his e-cigarette regulation bill was being debated in Montgomery.
“After everything we had gone through and the challenges we faced to get this enacted to protect our children, and then for one of your own children to do it, that was very discouraging,” Stringer said. “But his response to me was: ‘Everybody in school is doing it. It’s the cool thing.’”
On the local level, Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich has also said her office and other law enforcement officials are prepared to use the new law to “come after” any store selling vaping products to minors — an effort she said would include undercover compliance checks at retailers in the area.
As a prosecutor, Rich also expressed concern about the possibility for vaping products being used to ingest illicit drugs like liquid marijuana oil and even vapable synthetic marijuana. It’s worth noting those “black market” products can already be found in Mobile.
In fact, the Mobile County Sheriff’s office made the largest bust of liquid THC in its history after it uncovered a shipment of 2,200 cartridges that were mailed from California to a local address last week. The joint operation with the U.S. Postal Service led to the arrest of two Mississippi residents so far.
So far it’s unclear whether there’s any statewide appetite for further regulation of vaping products in Alabama — like the bans on flavored products already enacted through legislation and executive action in Michigan and New York. However, federal officials are also looking to take action themselves.
In response to the wave of recent illness around the country, President Donald Trump announced last week his intention to seek a federal ban on the sale of all flavored e-cigarette products, which have been derided by health experts for some time as being more appealing to young people.
No firm rule or flavor-ban has been rolled out yet, but local vape shops are already concerned about sweeping changes that, if enacted, would almost certainly put some out of business. While they recognize those reacting to the current outbreak of illnesses have good intentions, many vaping proponents believe regulators are training their sights on the wrong target.
Katlin Purvis, co-owner of Parlor Vapes, said she’s treated her products like tobacco for years, and one of the first things you see walking into her store is a sign that says “you must be 21 to enter.” It was there years before Alabama’s vaping laws took effect and, she said, Parlor doesn’t and has never sold to minors.
That said, Purvis estimated that adults purchasing flavored e-cigarette cartridges make up probably 90 percent of the business her store does — purchasing products she says are disturbed from reputable companies and are inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
While she acknowledged there is still little known about the long-term effects of vaping, Purvis said adults should be able to decide for themselves if they want to use those products, regardless of the flavor.
“I understand certain flavors might appeal to younger people, but they also appeal to adults as well,” she said. “When we’re dealing with someone who’s been smoking for years, we have much more success having them get off of cigarettes with fruity or dessert flavors. There’s a very small percentage of our customers who actually vape a straight tobacco flavor.”
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