First death linked to mysterious vaping illness confirmed in Georgia

In this January 2019 file photo, a customer blows a cloud of smoke from a vape pipe at a local shop in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Combined ShapeCaption
In this January 2019 file photo, a customer blows a cloud of smoke from a vape pipe at a local shop in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Nine people in state hospitalized with pneumonia from e-cigarettes

The Georgia Department of Public Health announced Wednesday the state’s first death from a vaping-linked illness.

The state agency said the patient was a man over the age of 35 who did not live in metro Atlanta. He had a history of heavy nicotine vaping, but no history of vaping THC, which has been linked to a majority of the mysterious vaping-related lung diseases afflicting e-cigarette users.

The death is one of nine confirmed cases in Georgia. The nine people were hospitalized and developed pneumonia with “no known infectious cause,” according to the agency.

In Georgia, those sickened range in age from 18 to 68. The median age of the cases is 26; seven are men.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with states to investigate more than 500 cases of vaping-associated illness. There have been at least eight deaths confirmed in seven states.

No specific e-cigarette device or substance has been linked to all of the cases. E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat liquid, turning it into vapor for inhaling. They are an increasingly popular alternative to combustible cigarettes.

Doctors are reporting cases of otherwise healthy patients, many in their late teens and 20s, showing up in emergency rooms gasping for breath and vomiting. The CDC said the outbreak does not seem to be caused by an infection but by chemical exposure, possibly a solvent mixed with nicotine or THC, the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

But with the cause of illness still unknown, the CDC is urging people to consider refraining from using e-cigarettes. People who decide to continue vaping should not buy vaping products off the street and they should not modify or add any substances to the products.

Symptoms of vaping-associated illnesses, which worsen over time, include cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

The rash of cases has heightened scrutiny of e-cigarettes, even though many health experts consider them less harmful than traditional cigarettes, which release toxins through combustion.

Kevin Burns, the chief executive of Juul, the dominant e-cigarette company in the U.S., stepped down on Wednesday. Juul also announced it is suspending all broadcast, print and digital product advertising in the U.S. as it faces mounting investigations, accused of getting teenagers hooked on flavored nicotine pods.

K.C. Crosthwaite, an executive from Altria, the largest U.S. tobacco company and maker of Marlboro cigarettes, replaces Burns. Altria owns a 35% stake in Juul. (Altria is expected to open during the coming weeks a new “heat-not-burn” tobacco product store at Lenox Square in Buckhead, the company’s first store ahead of a national rollout.)