Lessons from the public health responses to the US outbreak of vaping-related lung injury

Addiction. 2021 May;116(5):985-993. doi: 10.1111/add.15108. Epub 2020 May 30.

Abstract

Aim: To describe an outbreak of lung injuries in 2019 among people who vaped in the United States (type of injuries, people afflicted, substances vaped and cause of the injuries) and to analyse critically the regulatory responses of public health authorities and the media reporting of the outbreak.

Methods: Case studies of the reporting of the e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury (EVALI) outbreak. We examined data on the number of cases of lung injury provided by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), public advice on the causes of the outbreak provided by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), major media reports of the outbreak and proposed regulatory responses by governments in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.

Results: The CDC initially suggested that the cause of the outbreak was nicotine vaping because the outbreak followed a large increase in nicotine vaping among US adolescents. Case-control studies revealed that the majority of cases had vaped illicit cannabis oils that were contaminated by vitamin E acetate. The CDC's public advice and the media were slow to report the evidence on the role of cannabis vaping. Popular government regulatory proposals-bans on sales of nicotine flavours and vaporizers-were based on the assumption that nicotine vaping was the cause of the outbreak.

Conclusions: Media reporting in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom of the US Centers for Disease Control's analysis of the causes of the e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury outbreak contributed to regulatory over-reactions to nicotine vaping by the public health community.

Keywords: Cannabis legalisation; cannabis vaping; e-cigarette bans; e-cigarettes; vaping related lung injury; vitamin E acetate.