Fact/Fiction: Is a vaping-related lung disease killing people in the USA?

Old news, truthfully retold. This week we look at claims that vaping has been linked to 18 deaths in America

How it was told

The smoking ban has done plenty to reduce the amount of people smoking tobacco, but vaping has grown in popularity in its place.

High streets have played host to trendy vape shops and there remains the ever-present threat of being engulfed by a sweet-smelling watermelon cloud.

But all that threatened to go up in smoke last week when headlines centred in on the health risks associated with vaping.

There was the story of Terry Miller, who was dubbed the first person in the UK to die of a condition linked to the habit.

But it was the articles relating to the USA that we will focus on, with an alleged death toll of 17 people, rising to 18 at the time of writing.

That’s according to The Sun, who went for the headline: “DEADLY CLUE:  Vaping disease causes ‘chemical burns like WW1 mustard gas poisonings’ as US death toll hits 17”.

The Daily Mail took a similar approach with: “Vaping-related lung injuries are likened to World War I soldiers breathing in MUSTARD GAS after Mayo Clinic blames toxic fumes for the pneumonia-like illness that has killed 17”.

The death toll was not repeated in Metro, which instead focused on the chemical burns with: “Top clinic says vaping is so dangerous because it causes chemical ‘burns’ to lungs”. That was also true for The i and The Independent.

All of the stories come from the ‘Pathology of Vaping-Associated Lung Injury’ study from the Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

But do these stories stack up or are they just a lot of hot air?

Facts. Checked

The vaping poisoning outbreak in the USA is a fast- moving story – but there are details related to this report that have been misunderstood.

Researchers reviewed lung biopsies from 17 patients in this report, all of whom had vaped and were suspected to have vaping-associated lung injury.

A biopsy involves taking a small sample of body tissue so it can be examined under a microscope, and in this case it was from 17 patients who were alive, although two later died.

The Sun and Daily Mail stories do not make this clear.

The report does note that the US Centers for Disease Contol and Prevention (CDC) have recorded more than 800 lung injury cases that are associated with electronic cigarette use. There have been 12 deaths confirmed in 10 states, with investigations finding that the products contained THC or other cannabinoid oils.

This figure has continued to grow since publication. At the time of writing, there have been 1,080 lung injury cases according to the CDC, with 18 deaths confirmed in 15 states.

However, responding to the study, Prof Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, insisted that the results suggest contamination and warned of the dangers of a ban. She likened the results to a poisoning outbreak. She said: “This provides further evidence that it is extremely unlikely, if not impossible, that flavoured nicotine e-liquids of the type that have been used by millions of people around the world for up to a decade (including in the UK) are causing these injuries. Instead contaminants look like they are to blame. Most of the evidence points to adulterants in cannabis vaping but other products may be involved.

“Indeed, bans may make the problem worse by restricting access and driving people to illicit sources.”

While the long-term effects of vaping are still to be determined – and are the focus of intensive research – Public Health England has previously recommended using e-cigarettes to stop smoking and in a 2018 report said vaping was 95 per cent less harmful than tobacco.

“We need to reassure smokers that switching to an e-cigarette would be much less harmful than smoking. This demonstration highlights the devastating harms caused by every cigarette and helps people see that vaping is likely to pose only a fraction of the risk,” said Prof John Newton, director of health improvement at PHE.

While the coverage of the Mayo Clinic report was lacking here, the stories underline that vaping’s safety is still being researched and the importance of buying from a legitimate and trustworthy supplier.

Image: Miles Cole