Because the CDC and state health departments have deliberately been conflating the respiratory disease outbreak with the general problem of youth vaping, they have not been clear in communicating the scientific evidence regarding the type of products that are most likely causing the outbreak. Because of the confusion they have created, a large number of state officials, health practitioners, and media outlets have been incorrectly reporting that a substantial proportion of the outbreak case patients used only nicotine-containing e-cigarettes.
For example, in its legal brief opposing a temporary restraining order against its emergency order banning the sale of vaping products, the state of Massachusetts claimed that "17% [of outbreak case patients] used only nicotine."
As another example, one chest physician told the public that about 15% of outbreak case patients: "used only nicotine-based products."
Another physician writing for UpToDate claimed that 15% of case patients "used products with nicotine but not THC."
Newsweek reported that about 16% of case patients "used only nicotine."
Yahoo also reported that a subset of the case patients "used only nicotine-containing products."
NBC News, too, reported that: "16 percent [of case patients] used only nicotine products."
The Rest of the Story
These statements are simply not true, or at least they are not backed up by solid evidence. It is not the case that 15% of case patients used only nicotine products. The evidence is actually that 15% (it's now down to 11%) of case patients did not admit to using products other than nicotine-containing e-liquids. The difference between these claims might sound minor, but it has immense public health implications.
A story published today out of Indiana illustrates why this distinction is so important. The article reports that a young male in Indiana developed vaping-associated respiratory illness and claimed to have only used nicotine-containing products. But it turns out that he really didn't know what was in the product because it was given to him, and he just assumed it was a nicotine-based product because "that’s what is mostly in vapes." Subsequent testing of the e-liquid in question revealed that it actually contained THC. But the patient had no idea that he was vaping THC oil.
What the CDC and many state health department officials don't seem to realize is that youth are not obtaining their vaping products by purchasing them at stores. They are mostly obtaining them from friends or school distributors, off the internet, or from street shops or dealers. For this reason, many youth vapers really have no way to know what is in their e-liquids.
Moreover, as the Indiana story illustrates, even if a youth knows they are vaping THC oil, there is a strong incentive not to report it. The youth in question was expelled from school indefinitely and his mother is fighting the school system to have him reinstated.
Furthermore, the CDC - until very recently - did not recommend that physicians conduct THC drug screens on patients, which ensured that it would not be possible to link all of the cases to the use of THC. To the best of my knowledge, the CDC has not confirmed a single outbreak case who tested negative for THC use. In light of this, I think it is irresponsible for physicians or other health practitioners or groups to report that a certain percentage of patients "did not use" THC vaping products.
The lack of understanding of youth vaping culture also explains why proposals to ban flavored e-cigarettes are misguided and will be ineffective and why claims that it is the flavors that are responsible for teen vaping are too simplistic. Youth are not vaping because they like flavors. They are vaping because they like vaping. Vaping is what's cool, not the particular type of e-liquid that you are vaping.
Moreover, youth will vape whatever cartridges are being supplied by the kids who serve as the distribution channels in their schools. The majority of kids are not making autonomous decisions about what to vape. They are vaping what's available. The supply is largely determined by a small number of distributors. All the kids in a school know who those distributors are. The distributors essentially control the supply.
This is why flavored e-cigarette bans will not necessarily get rid of the problem of youth vaping. What these bans will do, however, is: (1) facilitate a transition towards the use of THC oils; and (2) facilitate a shift towards the distribution of black market e-liquids. It is precisely these types of products that are causing the outbreak in the first place. This is why banning flavors will do nothing to curtail the outbreak but may make it much worse. And it will likely lead to more serious problems in the future.
A final possibility that needs to be considered is that some patients may actually be using nicotine-containing products, but contaminated THC oils may still be the reason for their illness. This is because there are bootleg, adulterated, and counterfeit products on the market in which a nicotine e-liquid is mixed with THC oil. In fact, lab testing of products recovered from case patients in two states has detected the presence of adulterated cartridges that contain both nicotine and THC.
We are still a long way from concluding that any cases of this outbreak have been caused by nicotine-only e-liquids and we are even further away from concluding that any cases have been caused by traditional nicotine-containing e-liquids sold by retail stores. In that light, bans on the sale of electronic cigarettes - even just flavored ones - are a terrible public policy that will do little to protect youth but will do a lot to put them at substantially higher risk of severe harm.