Have you heard the terrifying news? Vaping is killing people!
Here are just a few of the spine-tingling headlines that have made the rounds in recent months, all from the perpetually reliable Washington Post.
“Mystery lung illness linked to vaping. Health officials investigating nearly 100 possible cases”
“Maryland, Virginia among 22 states reporting incidents of vaping-related illness”
“Illinois patient’s death may be first in US tied to vaping”
Scary stuff! Except, the thing all of these articles about the dangers of vaping (and so many more articles just like them) have in common is that, intentionally or not, they leave out a lot of important details.
Take the April, 2019 Washington Post article “Clearing the air about e-cigarettes, vaping, nicotine, and health,” for example.
It kicks off with all of the usual statistics and warnings about how much teens are vaping these days, but then almost immediately, the tone changes with this line:
“The number one concern is the addiction power of the nicotine.” — Ana Navas-Acien, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health
Here’s the thing…no one is arguing that teens should be using nicotine. Of course not. Save that for when you’re home from war and your lungs are fully developed. But also, that’s a completely different discussion.
Nevertheless, even in articles that are seemingly just making the argument that teens shouldn’t use nicotine, you’ll often see a bunch of go-to statements about the dangers of vaping that, in most cases, aren’t nearly as damning as the wording implies.
Scare-Quote #1: EACH JUUL POD CONTAINS THE SAME AMOUNT OF NICOTINE AS AN ENTIRE PACK OF CIGARETTES!!!!!!!!!
Well, yeah. Because a Juul pod is meant to take the same amount of time to smoke as a pack of cigarettes would.
Let’s do math!
It takes around five minutes to smoke a cigarette, provided you’re not smoking American Spirits (the companion cigarette). Assuming you sleep eight hours every night (if you’re a smoker you probably don’t), that gives a dedicated chain-smoker enough time to burn around nine packs a day, at least in theory.
But hey, let’s keep it conservative and say six packs a day.
Meanwhile, have a look at this thread from the r/juul subreddit. It’s about how long it takes to get through a Juul pod. On the highest end of things, you see a few people saying they can get through 2–3 pods per day.
Most of the replies say it takes a day or two to get through one pod.
Good news! I can speak from personal experience here. I started vaping, I kid you not, in an attempt to quit chewing nicotine gum. And it worked! Which is saying a lot, because I used nicotine gum (often while also smoking cigarettes) off and on for 20 years.
Given the nature of my job, I can vape pretty damn relentlessly. When I was using a Juul, I’d maybe get through a pod a day, and even then only if I paused to smoke weed a lot less often than usual.
So, the fact that a Juul pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes is an almost meaningless piece of information. Cigarettes are laden with chemicals meant to make them burn faster, because the faster they burn, the more you can smoke.
If a person really wanted to, they could easily get through five or six packs of cigarettes a day. Getting through five or six Juul pods in a day would be way more of a challenge.
Scare-Quote #2: E-CIGS CONTAIN THE SAME CHEMICALS AS CIGARETTES!!!!!!
While we’re on the subject of additives, in that same Washington Post article you see another reference that pops up all the time in the great vape debate.
Here’s a quote:
“For example, a study published last year in the journal Pediatrics found that e-cig devices contain some of the same cancer-causing ingredients found in traditional cigarettes.”
What you don’t see is a link to that study. It’s almost as if they’re implying that you need to have access to a paper copy of Pediatrics to read it. But no, it’s online. You can read it right here.
Sure enough, it does say that some potentially carcinogenic chemicals have been found in e-cigarettes. But it also says a few other things. Here’s one:
“It is worth noting that although e-cigarette–only users had significantly higher exposure to 5 VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), controls also had detectable levels of these chemicals. In fact, human exposure to VOCs from environmental sources is ubiquitous. It is also worth noting that levels of VOCs detected in e-cigarette–only users were on average lower than has been reported among adults”
I added the emphasis there (and the part in parenthesis). In case it isn’t clear, what they’re acknowledging is that the chemicals in question are found damn near everywhere and you will be exposed to them no matter what. We’re talking about the same chemicals that force large buildings in California to carry a warning about potential exposure to carcinogens.
Those are the kind of chemicals they’re referring to in that study.
To imply that means a Juul pod contains the same chemicals as a cigarette is just wrong and dangerous. Cigarettes have carbon monoxide in them. Cigarette manufacturers use ammonia to make cigarettes more addictive. There have been rumors that cigarettes have contained strychnine at various points throughout history.
According to the FDA website, cigarettes contain more than 70 chemicals that have been linked to cancer. Juul pods and their equally demonized counterparts don’t even sort of come close to presenting the same danger as smoking, be it from hazardous chemicals or nicotine intake. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop countless reporters from leaning on that one study to push the idea that the dangers are exactly the same.
Something else that rarely comes up when this study is mentioned is this part from the “Financial Disclosures” section:
“Dr Benowitz is a consultant to several pharmaceutical companies that market medications to aid smoking cessation…”
“Drs Ramo and Rubinstein have consulted for Carrot Inc, which makes a tobacco cessation device…”
In my opinion, and the opinion of a whole lot of others, vaping is absolutely the most effective means of quitting tobacco. By a wide margin. Patches don’t help with the oral fixation that plagues a lot of smokers, and the gum doesn’t give you anything to do with your hands. Vaping nicotine covers all of those bases, and because it’s available in strengths ranging from “entirely too much” to “none at all,” you can use it to gradually wean yourself off of nicotine.
So, let there be no doubt, the people behind this study have a deep financial interest in discrediting vaping as a safe alternative to cigarettes.
The tobacco industry does as well, obviously, but they can always just partner up with vape companies if it comes down to it. If Big Tobacco has to become Big Vape Juice in order to keep selling you nicotine, that’s exactly what they’ll do.
The tobacco cessation industry, on the other hand, has absolutely no choice but to fund studies claiming a Juul pod is just as dangerous as a cigarette if they hope to survive.
Misconception: Vaping Means One Thing
Another often-overlooked hitch in the “we need to crackdown on vaping to protect kids from nicotine” argument is that vaping doesn’t just mean one thing.
Let me run a hypothetical scenario by you. Say a co-worker came to you one day and said a family member started smoking a year ago, and now that family member is homeless as a result of picking up that habit.
You’d be flabbergasted because, like, who loses their house over a nicotine habit? You might even ask that question, at which point they’d say, “Oh, no, they weren’t smoking cigarettes, they were smoking crack.”
We associate the general term “smoking” with tobacco cigarettes. Anything beyond that requires more information. You can’t just say “smoking” and mean “freebasing cocaine” or anything else of the like and expect people to understand what you mean.
The people in charge of scaring you into smoking real cigarettes like the Greatest Generation™ did rely on this lack of distinction to get their message across, as does that same famous study about chemicals in e-cigarettes.
At one point in the study, they make it clear that they didn’t bother differentiating what the test subjects meant by “vaping.” Maybe they were using a Juul purchased at a reputable outlet, maybe their friend built them a vape out of car parts and they use it with liquid that same friend makes in his shed. Who knows? Does it even matter, honestly?
Yep, it matters a whole damn lot. Especially if we’re talking about all of those more recent, even scarier headlines about teens coming down with mysterious lung ailments as a result of vaping. Without fail, every single one of those articles is plastered with pictures of Juul pods and warnings about how the war on Lychee Blast vape juice must move forward! And in every single case, the product they’re actually talking about is something else entirely.
You can see that at work in this Washington Post article with the spine-chilling headline “Mystery lung illness linked to vaping. Health officials investigating nearly 100 possible cases.”
Right under that headline is a picture of a young girl using a Juul.
The next two image related spots are a kid in a hospital bed hooked to a ventilator…
… and a bunch of knockoff Juul pods.
It includes all the usual stats and facts about the dangers of vaping, and then tells the tale of a young man named Dylan Nelson.
According to their version of events, Dylan “has been vaping for about a year” and “was hospitalized with pneumonia last month after he started having trouble breathing.” It mentions that a nurse told his mom that his illness could be related to “vaping” and gives us this quote from her:
“You need to sit your kids down and tell them the dangers of this stuff. If you’re an adult, wise up — this is not good. Look into it before you decide to pick this stuff up and start using this.”
Imagine you’re a parent. Hey, maybe you already are. Now imagine you find a Juul in your kid’s backpack, fresh off of reading that article. You would have every reason to panic.
Now, before we move on, let’s look at one more quote from that Washington Post article:
“Patients ranged in age from 18 to 49, and many reported the use of cannabis-containing products, the advisory said.”
Wait, wait, wait…aren’t we worried about teens vaping? Because the age group referenced there, despite surely containing a few teens, is what society definitively refers to as “adults.”
Oh, and cannabis? There’s no cannabis in a Juul pod! What is this all about?
That’s where those distinctions between the different types of vaping become important. Vaping nicotine and vaping THC are absolutely not the same thing. Not just that, but…irony alert…THC is far and away the least safe of the two.
How different are they? Well, the “mystery illness” that guy in Wisconsin came down with does actually have a name. It’s lipoid pneumonia, and it cannot be caused by alcohol-based nicotine liquids that you find in the Juul and similar products.
Read that last sentence again slowly if you need to. The device the girl is smoking in the main image of the article, and the products incriminatingly pictured throughout the article, cannot cause the illness the article is about.
Lipoid pneumonia can, however, be caused by the chemicals used in the process that turns marijuana into a clear liquid that you can smoke in vape cartridges. It involves a lot of solvents and chemicals that you definitely don’t want in your lungs.
Even then, this is no reason to swear off those THC cartridges. You just absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, buy them “from a guy” on the street. It is a heavily regulated product that undergoes intense lab testing before it can be sold legally, and that is one hundred percent because it needs to be as contaminant-free as possible before it’s safe to use.
Legitimate Warning: BEWARE OF DANK VAPES
As it turns out, despite only getting a sentence or two of attention from the writer of this cautionary tale about youth gone awry in Wisconsin, THC is the entire story here.
Compare that Washington Post article to this local news segment about the same incident.
Not only do we know what product caused this illness, but in that story, we see a picture of the packaging.
But for some reason, when this story made its way to all the mainstream outlets, it became this vague warning about the dangers of vaping in all its forms.
Again, I can’t stress enough, we know what is causing these lung ailments, and it isn’t Juul pods. It’s Dank Vapes.
That’s the “brand name” that countless numbers of counterfeit THC cartridges are sold under. Except Dank Vapes isn’t a weed company. They’re a packaging company. They make legitimate looking packaging and cartridges for bootleggers to fill with THC oil and sell on the street or on the internet. These cartridges go through none of the testing that the stuff you buy in reputable stores do, meaning they’re almost guaranteed to be laden with solvents and all sorts of other unfortunate stuff you don’t want to inhale.
Their appeal is that they’re crazy cheap. One site I found offers one-gram cartridges for $15. For those non-weed smokers out there, a good quality one-gram THC cartridge usually sells for around $50 — $60. You can get them for less at legitimate weed shops, but even then you’re kinda rolling the dice on what nastiness got left behind in the extraction process. If you’re buying them off the street, you might as well just take up huffing spray paint or something.
That’s exactly what people are doing, though, and it’s making them sick. Another detail you don’t hear much about these “mystery” lung ailments is that, of the 22 states where they’ve been reported, only one allows recreational marijuana use. That state is California, where the higher prices brought on by legalization have kept the black market for weed alive and well. It’s not uncommon for “pop-up” vape cartridge shops to materialize for a few days, sell a bunch of dirty THC cartridges, and then disappear before the profiteers are ever caught. There’s a good chance that’s where a lot of these cartridges are being purchased initially before making their way to states where weed is harder to come by.
So why isn’t the story being reported that way? It is in some cases. There’s a really great article at inverse.com by Emma Betuel about the Dank Vapes brand.
A recent USA Today article questioned why the FDA or CDC isn’t saying more about our country’s very obvious problem with contaminants in black market THC cartridges.
But the higher up the journalistic food chain these stories get, details about the specific products that are most likely causing these issues get replaced with vague references to “vaping” in general and reminders that teens are vaping at an alarming rate.
Scare-Quote #3: E-CIG EXPLODES IN MAN’S FACE!!!!!!
You see this same weird vagueness in the reporting around vape explosions. There have been a few high profile instances of that recently. More often than not, the headline in those cases said something along the lines of “e-cigarette blows man’s jaw off” or something equally horrific.
Well, just like the word “vaping,” the media uses the word “e-cigarette” to cover a lot of ground that a single phrase shouldn’t necessarily be covering. Case in point, does this look like a cigarette to you?
Or does it look like a projectile that might shoot right through your whole damn face? That device is called a “mechanical mod” and every damn one of them is a disaster waiting to happen. For one thing, they have no mechanism built in to monitor and control the battery temperature. Your first warning it might explode is when it gets super hot. Keep using it after that, and the two gigantic, industrial strength batteries needed to power it might just propel themselves into the back of your skull.
The Post has details about how the victim thrashed around in his car when he died and all the visible blood and even some stuff about his childhood, but somehow, couldn’t nail down exactly what type of device he was using.
The Verge not only identified the exact device, but also ended with some genuinely useful information about how little regulation there is around vaporizer batteries.
Meanwhile, that Washington Post article ends with…a video about teens using Juul pods.
Real Reason to Be Scared: Tobacco Kills 400,000 Americans Each Year
Listen, far be it from me to push conspiracy theories or anything of the like, but something is very wrong here. If a new lighter hit the market and kids were using that specific lighter to burn down their houses, you wouldn’t write an article blaming “fire” in general and include a bunch of pictures of matches. That’s not how warning the public is supposed to work.
Sure, the tobacco industry has lost some of its standing in the world, but they’re still powerful enough to kill 400,000 Americans every year and get away with it. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that they might still wield some influence as it pertains to how stories that involve their interests are covered in the media.
We know they’re way more influential on social media than anyone realized. A 2018 investigation revealed that tobacco companies were using social media influencers based outside of the United States to promote their products online, without ever revealing their financial relationship. The posts these relationships generated were seen more than 8 billion times in the United States and 25 billion times globally.
Is Big Tobacco behind the recent influx of stories desperately trying to tie Juul pods to explosions and lung disorders? Could be!
Or maybe it’s just that these outlets know that a sad story about someone dying will get a lot more clicks and shares if readers believe that death was caused by a product they or someone they know uses regularly.
Who knows? Whatever the case, it’s irresponsible and could very easily get people killed. Dank Vapes should be national news right now. People should know the name and they should fear it.
Instead, the problems black market street vapes are causing are being used to imply that Juul and products like it are just as bad as cigarettes, when the available evidence points to that not even sort of being the case.
It should go without saying that this is a campaign that could backfire horribly. There are already entire cities, like San Francisco, that have banned Juul sales within city limits and shipments to addresses in the city.
And what now? That means teens won’t seek out nicotine anymore? Of course not, they’ll just seek it out through different means, just like varying percentages of teens have done for all of history. Banning the Juul just means more young people will fall into the welcoming arms of traditional cigarettes and those vapes that sometimes explode in your face.
How is that better?
Not specifying what devices and products are causing these issues means the public in general will be less afraid of trying those devices and products should the opportunity ever present itself, and that’s a surefire path to getting a lot of people killed.
So is deceiving Juul users into believing that what they’re doing is just as harmful as the tobacco habit they likely spent years trying to kick.
Any media outlet engaging in that kind of misinformation should be ashamed and you have every reason to question their motives.