Before electronic cigarettes hit the U.S. market about 10 years ago, Connecticut was making progress in decreasing nicotine use among young people.
About one in four teens were smoking cigarettes in 2000, but by 2017, that dropped to only 3.5% of school-aged students statewide, according to state reports.
Then e-cigarettes, or vaping, became popular among middle and high school students.
“We were headed in the right direction,” said Connecticut Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell. “But with aggressive marketing campaigns touting interesting flavors and pitching e-cigarettes as safe alternative to smoking, youth nicotine use is once again on the rise.”
The commissioner testified before a U.S. House of Representatives committee in Washington, D.C. Wednesday during a hearing about the extensiveness of vaping among minors, the long-term health consequences and concern over the current national outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses.
Coleman-Mitchell told U.S. congressmen that e-cigarettes have “wiped out all our gains” in Connecticut’s tobacco reduction work among youth. Data from the Connecticut School Health Survey showed that nearly 15% of students have tried vaping, up from 2.4% in 2011.
Now that both minors and adults are experiencing lung illnesses linked to vaping, Coleman-Mitchell said the issue has become a public health emergency and implored representatives to act with more urgency.
“Do you want to wait another 50 years to combat the vaping epidemic?” she asked. “We need to act now, otherwise we run the risk of losing a whole generation to severe, costly illness or, even worse, what we’ve already experienced — death.”
There have been 31 reported cases of vaping-related lung illness in Connecticut. DPH officials announced earlier this month that one person died after hospitalization for multiple medical conditions.
State and federal agencies are investigating possible causes by collecting and testing vaping products, substances and additives, but they have yet to identify any one element that’s common in all patient cases.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised people to stop using vaping products containing THC, which they say has been a common factor in a majority of cases, but deputy director Dr. Anne Schuchat said they haven’t ruled out nicotine products.
“It may be that there’s one cause, or that there are many problematic substances causing lung injury,” she said, “and there may be complex root causes for the increases that we’re seeing right now.”
CDC officials announced Thursday that the number of cases nationwide has grown to nearly 1,500. There have been 33 confirmed deaths as of Oct. 15.
The introduction of flu season and respiratory illnesses caused by cold weather may make diagnosing, treating, and reporting lung injury cases even more complicated, Schuchat said, as all those illnesses share common symptoms.
“We urged recommendations for evaluating individuals with respiratory symptoms to consider both lung injury associated with vaping or e-cigarettes, as well as influenza, and to treat for both if appropriate,” she said. “It’s going to be a very challenging winter.”
Some states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island have responded to the illness outbreak on their own by introducing bans or partial bans on vaping products. But Dr. Sally Satel, a Yale psychiatry lecturer and scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said that will cause adult smokers to return to tobacco cigarettes or black market products.
“So while the current rash of lung illnesses and fatalities is a very serious problem, it’s not a problem that will be solved by bans involving commercial e-cigarette products, because those haven’t been implicated as a cause,” she told the congressional committee.
Earlier this year, Connecticut passed a law that raised the tobacco purchase age to 21, which went into effect on Oct. 1. It includes vaping and e-cigarette products, but it does not place restrictions on flavored products.
Gov. Ned Lamont is scheduled to meet with state governors from Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island in New York City Thursday to discuss laws, regulations and policies addressing vaping-related lung disease and marijuana legalization.