With flu season approaching, Utah doctors and government leaders are urging residents to be mindful of their symptoms, particularly if they use e-cigarettes and other vaping products.
State health officials on Wednesday confirmed the first Utah death from vaping-related lung injuries. And during a roundtable discussion at Primary Children’s Hospital on Thursday, Intermountain Healthcare physician Dixie Harris said there is a concern that individuals experiencing lung disease from vaping could misinterpret their condition and fail to seek medical attention.
“They talk about having nausea, vomiting, feeling like they have the worst flu that they could ever have,” Harris said.
Recent months have seen a nationwide spike in cases of lung injury believed to be caused by or related to vaping, in which oils containing nicotine, marijuana or other ingredients are electronically heated and inhaled.
The nature of those injuries varies significantly, but Harris said in the local cases she has reviewed there’s a trend of initial flu-like gastrointestinal and respiratory symptoms “smoldering” for several days before the patient’s condition suddenly and rapidly deteriorates.
“The lung process explodes very quickly,” Harris said. “Usually in 24 to 48 hours, their lungs just fill up.”
Thursday’s roundtable discussion was hosted by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who is sponsoring federal legislation aimed at banning flavored e-cigarettes — which are believed to contribute to a rise in youth vaping — and requiring tamper-proof vaping cartridges to mitigate black-market adulteration.
“If adults want to use vaping products, then let them have the normal flavor of tobacco,” Romney said. “But not these other candy-type flavors, which are bringing in our young people.”
Romney’s legislation also proposes to levy the same excise taxes on e-cigarettes as traditional tobacco products, with the revenue from those taxes funding anti-vaping public safety information.
“It’s not safe,” Romney said. “And we haven’t communicated that as we should have.”
Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, participated in the roundtable and said that, based on the anecdotal stories of his two high school-age children, he isn’t surprised by statistics that suggest widespread use of e-cigarettes among teens.
“They don’t call them bathrooms any more at the high school,” Cullimore said. “They call them vape rooms. It’s definitely a problem.”
Thursday’s discussion also highlighted how little is known about the specific causes of the lung disease trend. Participants noted that the recent spike in cases follows years of commercially available and popular vaping products and that some patients have experienced symptoms despite sharing a device with other users who showed no adverse health effects.
Brian Shiozawa, a physician and former state senator, said that while the precise mechanism for how vaping harms people is not yet known, it is known that vaping is unhealthy.
“We know it’s deadly for our children, and we have to stop it," he said. "There is no way we should have our children and adolescents vaping. It’s dangerous and it’s wrong.”
Romney said he’s hopeful that this year’s flu shots will be effective. But they probably won’t be entirely effective at stopping the spread of influenza, he said, which could exacerbate the challenge of treating and identifying vaping-related illness.
“This is a warning to the public here in Utah and across the nation,” Romney said. “You’re going to have some busy times, I’m afraid, this winter as you go into flu season. But we’re going to have to keep on battling.”