State officials subpoena vaping oil manufacturers as more illnesses are reported in NY

Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, center, is joined by State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, left, and Counsel to the Governor Beth Garvey on September 9, 2019 to announce three steps that state officials are taking to address the growing number of pulmonary illnesses related to vaping. There are more than 40 cases of patients reporting shortness of breath, persistent coughing, chest pain, fever, nausea and vomiting, all of whom reported using vaping devices to smoke cannabis-filled cartridges purchased on the black market.

With more vaping-related illnesses reported across New York, the state Health Department has issued subpoenas to three companies that produce the thickening agents used in vape liquids to determine what ingredients they use in these products.

Additionally, the Health Department is requiring new signs in every store that sells vaping products and e-cigarettes warning consumers about the dangers of vaping. As of Sept 11, there are 54 cases of severe pulmonary illnesses directly related to vaping in New York, with patients ranging in age from 15 to 46.

Signs like this will be posted in any store in New York that sells vaping devices and related products.

Nationwide, 450 possible cases of lung illness associated with the use of e-cigarette products have been reported to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and six deaths have been confirmed in California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, and Oregon.

The actions by the state Health Department were ordered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday, which he announced at a press conference in Manhattan.

“Our advice is simple: Don’t do it, because we don’t know that it is safe,” Cuomo said. “This is a frightening public health phenomenon. An activity that many young people engage in.

“Common sense says if you don’t know what you are smoking, don’t smoke it,” Cuomo said. “And right now we don’t know what you’re smoking in a lot of these vaping substances.”

The companies being issued subpoenas are HoneyCut Labs in Santa Monica, Calif.; Floraplex Terpenes in Ypsilanti, Mich.; and Pure Diluent by Mass Terpenes in Amherst, Mass.

More companies are likely to be ordered to provide samples as the state’s investigation continues.

Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office
Some of the products being tested by the Health Department’s Wadsworth Laboratory in Albany.

The governor also said he plans to advance legislation that would prohibit the possession, manufacture, distribution or sale of flavored electronic liquids in an effort to discourage electronic cigarette use in New York state, especially among young people.

According to Department of Health data, high school students use e-cigarettes at rates five times higher than adults over age 25. Nearly 40 percent of 12th grade students and 27 percent of high school students in New York state are now using e-cigarettes, and this increase is largely driven by flavored e-liquids.

High school use in 2018 is 160 percent higher than it was in 2014. While New York’s high school student smoking rate dropped from 27.1 percent in 2000 to a record low of 4.3 percent in 2016, aggressive marketing efforts that promote flavored e-cigarettes stands to turn that trend. Flavoring is a key youth marketing strategy of the vaping/aerosol industry just as it is in the cigarette, cigar and smokeless tobacco markets.

E-cigarette marketing efforts highlight flavors such as mint chocolate, bubblegum and cherry cola, and creates a mistaken belief that they are not harmful to users. Studies show nearly 78 percent of high school students, and 75 percent of middle school students report being exposed to pro-tobacco marketing in 2016.

“The current outbreak of vaping-associated illnesses and the increasing number of young people using vape products and developing lifelong addictions are two serious public health crises,” said New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who joined Cuomo at Monday’s press conference. “We have issued advisories to hospitals and health centers about this issue. We are working with every county. We are testing every sample that comes in from across the state. We are expanding our investigation.”

New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker

Both the State Health Department and the CDC are focusing their investigation on a substance known as vitamin E acetate which has been found in every sample tested so far in New York.

Laboratory results have shown very high levels of vitamin E acetate in nearly all cannabis-containing samples analyzed by the Health Department’s Wadsworth Center in Albany.

Vitamin E acetate is a commonly available nutritional supplement that is safe when ingested as a vitamin supplement or applied to the skin. However, it is suspected that its oil-like properties is the cause for the respiratory symptoms observed in patients who have come forward so far.

All of the products tested by the state Health Department have come from the black market, according to Zucker. But when asked by reporters if it is safe to purchase vaping products at reputable retail stores and smoke shops, Zucker suggested “Err[ing] on the side of caution and don’t use any products,” until the Health Department learns more about the cause of the illnesses.

As of press time, there are 16 reported cases in Western New York; four in Central New York; six in the Capital Region; one in northern New York; 14 in the metropolitan region outside of New York City; and 10 inside the five boroughs. Three out-of-state residents have been treated in New York state hospitals.

This article was reported, researched and written by SUNY New Paltz journalism students Nadine Cafaro, Nick Califra, Chris Cosmai, Nikki Donohue, Taylor Dowd, Shyana Fisher, Maggie Gibson, Susanna Granieri, Erin Hannan, Tanima Hassan, Julia Howland, David Joo, Jake Mauriello, Rachel Muller, Takura Sophia-Blaise, Jason Stapf, Diana Testa and Sarah Weiga-Weglarz under the supervision of professor James Gormley.