Friday, October 11, 2019

News Headline Shows How Misinformation About Respiratory Disease Outbreak is Spreading

The featured headline of a news article published yesterday at NorthJersey.com (the North Jersey Record) was: "Vaping with JUUL Damaged NJ Woman's Lungs, Left Her Hospitalized."



The headline of the article itself read: "'My Lungs Were Chemically Burned': NJ Victim Speaks Out Against Vaping."

These headlines certainly give the impression that this unfortunate 21-year-old woman developed acute respiratory failure due to her use of JUUL.

If true, this would be an absolute disaster because there are an estimated 7 million JUUL users.

This is no doubt going to contribute to the public's belief that electronic cigarettes sold at retail stores, not tainted THC vape carts sold mostly on the black market, are responsible for the terrible respiratory disease outbreak that has now affected nearly 1,300 people and caused 26 deaths.

The first paragraph of the story reinforces the impression that JUUL was the cause of this woman's respiratory failure: "[She] started smoking cigarettes when she was 17 or 18, she said. Hoping to find a “safer alternative” — one that wouldn’t leave a smell — she picked up a Juul, a popular electronic cigarette device, and began vaping."

The Rest of the Story

It isn't until you get to the fine print that you found out the following:

"[She] began using vaping devices more and more, eventually taking hits almost every 10 minutes, she said. She first had other people purchase her vapes, and she began buying them from stores and unregulated dealers as soon as she was old enough."

Since nicotine products sold by retail stores are all regulated, it appears that by unregulated dealers she is referring essentially to illegal, black market products.

Of course it is not clear what specific product caused the illness. However, it certainly cannot be definitively attributed to JUUL since the patient was also apparently purchasing black market vaping products as well.

One must look at the overall epidemiologic data, and what those data tell us is that the vast majority of affected patients admit to vaping THC cartridges, most of which were purchased off the street or over the internet, not from licensed retail stores.

But this story illustrates how easy it is for misinformation to be disseminated widely enough so that the public gets the inaccurate impression that JUUL products are responsible for this outbreak. There are plenty of dangers associated with youth use of JUUL - namely, the potential for addiction - but acute respiratory failure is not one of them. If it were, we would certainly be seeing numerous cases of the illness among adults of all ages who report using JUUL.

Although there may be a tendency to blame the media, I believe that the media coverage is actually framed largely by the way we as health professionals communicate the information to the media. And I think the coverage is most profoundly influenced by the way the CDC has communicated about the causes of the outbreak.

While the CDC's most recent communication finally admits that THC vaping products are playing a role in the outbreak, it may be too little too late. The public clearly has the impression that your every day, retail sold, nicotine-containing e-cigarettes are what is causing this outbreak. This is reflected by large reductions in the sale of these products over the last few weeks.

Sadly, the tragic consequences of this failed communication include an increase in the sale of real cigarettes (as many vapers try to avoid the alleged risks by switching back to smoking) and I suspect a larger number of people continuing to use THC vape carts than would be had the CDC been transparent from the start.

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