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Despite recent downturn, local health officials still concerned over vape use among teens

Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-16 18:17:02-04

CINCINNATI — The outbreak of lung problems from vaping shrank to a 10-month low in the U.S. this spring. Discovering its cause helped, but some Tri-State researchers still see a public health issue among teens.

"We definitely want folks to stop vaping," said Dr. Stephen Feagins, Medical Director for Hamilton County Public Health and the interim Chief Clinical Officer for Mercy Health Cincinnati.

Both the CDC and FDA recommend people not use e-cigarette or vaping products that contain THC, the principal psychoactive chemical in cannabis plants, especially from informal sources like friends, family, or in-person or online dealers.

The WCPO 9 I-Team reported that local and federal law enforcement agencies are seizing increasing numbers of THC-loaded vape cartridges shipments. Police expressed concern for teenagers in the Tri-State vaping what officers might miss.

"These kids aren't stupid," said Chris Coners, Director of the Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force. "They don't keep things in packages that are marked 'drugs,' 'illegal,' or 'don't show mom.'"

The number of eighth-graders who admit vaping in the last 30 days rises every year, according to surveys by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Since 2016, the percentage has doubled. Last year, almost half the 12th-graders surveyed vaped, as well.

University of Cincinnati Addiction Sciences assistant professor Dr. LaTrice Montgomery, whose research focuses on marijuana and tobacco co-use, said THC plays no small role.

"It's really impossible to study vaping without looking at marijuana use," she said. "Typically, this discussion started with vaping nicotine. But what we know is people -- especially young people -- they're modifying these products."

In Ohio, medical marijuana plants contain a maximum of 35% THC. Extracts can be up to 70% THC. However, cartridges seized by police boast concentrations at or above 80%, according to local and federal law enforcement agencies.

Studies on how those concentrations impact the body are on-going. Dr. Feagins said high-concentrate THC needs to be super-heated and black market cartridges often use vitamin E acetate -- an add-in linked to the lung injury Evali outbreak that peaked last year -- to provide the spark.

This chart shows the curve of the 2019 outbreak of Evali, a lung injury commonly associated with vaping.

"It's just another way to get a much higher concentration, a dangerous concentration of THC into the system," Dr. Feagins said. "There is a THC toxicity and there is an impairment that can be prolonged related to that impairment of THC. There's a very real possibility that you won't have the abilities that you could have were you not using this drug."