FILE - In this April 16, 2019 file photo, a woman exhales while vaping from a Juul pen e-cigarette in Vancouver, Wash. Schools have been wrestling with how to balance discipline with treatment in their response to the soaring numbers of vaping students. Using e-cigarettes, often called vaping, has now overtaken smoking traditional cigarettes in popularity among students, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, one in five U.S. high school students reported vaping the previous month, according to a CDC survey. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
Brett Sholtis is WITF’s Transforming Health reporter, covering health care policy and community health issues affecting Pennsylvanians. His work often focuses on mental health policy and how it interacts with policing and prisons. Sholtis’ 2019 profile of a young woman with schizophrenia was recognized with a regional Edward R. Murrow Award. In 2020 a follow-up to that story helped to get that woman moved from county jail to a psychiatric facility. He is the host of Transforming Health’s annual “A Summer Read” book series, where he has led public conversations with Sheryl Sandberg, Sue Klebold and Sam Quinones. Sholtis also has reported extensively on Pennsylvania’s response to the coronavirus, election-year social unrest in Harrisburg and the opioid epidemic. He is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the NPR/Kaiser Health News team. Previously he worked as a business reporter at York Daily Record, where he was recognized with Associated Press and Keystone Awards for his work on nuclear waste and food safety. Sholtis is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard Kosovo campaign veteran.
(Harrisburg) — Seventeen people across the state are believed to have “lung diseases associated with vaping,” according to the state Department of Health.
The department is looking into another 20 cases that may also be tied to the electronic tobacco-and cannabis delivery systems.
Many of the patients are currently in the hospital with “serious lung injuries,” said Health Secretary Doctor Rachel Levine.
Levine said most of patients are male, and the average age of the cases is “in the low-to-mid 20s.”
While it’s true the state’s medical marijuana program calls for people to vaporize whole-leaf cannabis in some cases, that form of vaping is not what is suspect, Levine said. “None of the cases that we are looking at had anything to do with the medical marijuana program.”
Some experts have pointed to a chemical often used in liquefied cannabis, Vitamin E acetate, as a potential cause. However, Centers for Disease Control and the federal Food and Drug Administration aren’t sure about that yet.
Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless said researchers are analyzing more than 120 samples from around the country but “no one substance, including Vitamin E acetate, has been identified in all of the samples tested.”
“Importantly, identifying any compounds present in the samples will be one piece of the puzzle but won’t necessarily answer questions about causality, which makes our ongoing work critical,” Sharpless said.
As questions swirl over what’s causing the illnesses, the American Lung Association had a simpler message Tuesday: Do not use e-cigarettes.
“E-cigarettes are not safe and can cause irreversible lung damage and lung disease. No one should use e-cigarettes or any other tobacco product. This message is even more urgent today following the increasing reports of vaping-related illnesses and deaths nationwide.”
The state is working with Centers for Disease Control as well as poison control centers in Philadelphia in Pittsburgh to learn the cause of the mysterious lung disease.
Nationwide, the CDC reports six deaths—none in Pennsylvania—and more than 450 possible cases in at least 33 states.