Suspected Vaping Death Might Not Have Been Caused by Vaping

Suspected Vaping Death Might Not Have Been Caused by Vaping
Toshiro Shimada/Getty Images
The suspected vaping-related death of an unidentified eighteen-year-old male in the Denver metro area might not have actually been caused by vaping, according to state health officials.

"Unfortunately, the person who died had a history of vaping and died of a lung-related illness, though we do not know the specific cause," Shannon Barbare, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, writes to Westword in an email. "While the illness did not meet the case definition for E-cigarette, or Vaping, Product Use-Associated Lung Injury (EVALI), the CDC could not confirm that the death was unrelated to vaping. We cannot share any other details about this death. We do know vaping products are poorly regulated and may contain or generate chemicals that are unsafe, potentially making people sick. That's why our recommendation is to simply not vape."

In October, the department announced that it was investigating the state's first possible vaping-related death following the passing of the young man. But when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention completed its tests in December, officials determined that the man's death did not fit the federal definition of a vaping-related death.

Fifty-seven people have died across the country from vaping-related illnesses, and over 2,500 other individuals have developed a vaping-related illness, according to numbers from the CDC. Only eight of those classified by the CDC as having been stricken with a vaping-related illness have been in Colorado.

According to the CDC's website, vaping-related illnesses started emerging in the summer of 2019 and have been on the decline since September 2019.

Federal health officials have linked the outbreak to vitamin E acetate, an additive in THC vaping products. In November, Colorado's Marijuana Enforcement Division announced that it was banning vitamin E acetate and two other THC additives in response to the vaping illness outbreak.

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it was banning the sale of flavored pods, which are preferred by minors over vaping liquid that needs to be manually inserted into vapes. The announcement pulled back from the Trump administration's original proposal to ban flavored vaping products across the board.

In January, the Trump administration signed a bill that raised the minimum tobacco-purchasing age from 18 to 21.

Colorado lawmakers have introduced a bill that would bring age regulations here in line with the new national law and increase enforcement measures. The bill would also require state licensing for tobacco retail shops, something that only exists on the local level in certain municipalities.

State lawmakers have also floated the idea of a full flavor ban, with Senator Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, saying before the legislative session began, on January 8, that she'd be carrying such a bill. Fields has since walked back that assertion.

But some advocates for a flavor ban, like Jake Williams, the executive director of Healthier Colorado, expect to see such a bill introduced this session.

"The vast majority of kids who use these products are using flavored products,” says Williams. Colorado has one of the highest teen vaping rates in the country.

But stakeholders in the local vaping industry argue that a full flavor ban is not the right move.

"If we do a flavor ban at the state level, it’s not going to fix the teen problem. It’s going to devastate small businesses throughout the state. It will drive people to purchase products online or from out of state. And it will drive people back to combustible cigarettes," says Amanda Wheeler, vice president of the Rocky Mountain Smoke-Free Alliance and an owner of two vape shops in Colorado Springs.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.