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Can a vaping health crisis be avoided?

The silhouette of a man blowing a big puff of smoke against a purple background.
Reuters/Jason Lee
We've seen the smoke signals before.
  • Katherine Ellen Foley
By Katherine Ellen Foley

Health and science reporter

Published Last updated on

In January 1964, then-US surgeon general Luther Terry released the first report identifying cigarettes as a cause of lung cancer. He knew his words wouldn’t be welcomed by Americans—42% of whom smoked at the time—or big tobacco companies. The report was reportedly published on a Saturday specifically to avoid causing a market crash.

In the intervening 50 years, Americans’ love of tobacco has waned, but not disappeared: Over 34 million US adults still use tobacco products. When e-cigarettes came to the US in 2007, they seemed like the solution smokers had waited decades for: a delivery system for the nicotine that addicted them without the tobacco that sickened them.

But a spate of recent illnesses, coupled with vaping’s popularity, is bringing longstanding questions about its health impact to the fore. As of late Friday (Sep. 6), 450 people in 33 states have been hospitalized with acute bouts of coughing, shortness of breath, nausea, and vomiting tied to vape use. Many have been placed on ventilators, and at least five people have died. Two weeks ago the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an official warning for all e-cigarette products—a rarity for the organization, which typically shies away from commenting on consumer products.

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