The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the average age of people suffering from vaping problems is 19.
Twenty-two-year-old Noah Palmersheim is a waiter and vape shop assistant in Portland.
He’s been vaping since he was 15. He said he was both a smoker and a baseball player at school when a friend let him try his vape pen.
“I instantly kind of liked it better than cigarettes. The lack of smell. The fact that I could control my nicotine intake a little more than with cigarettes,” Palmersheim said.
“The other thing I would just notice [about smoking is] I would get sick every year, coughing up a lot of tar every once in a while. And I kind of noticed that decrease as I started vaping,” he said.
Even before he was 21, he said, it wasn’t hard to buy.
“I’d say it’s about as easy as buying cigarettes underage. You know you’ve just got to hope you don’t get ID’ed.”
The Oregon Health Authority estimates that for every 100 kids who go to a store to buy an e-cigarette or a vape pen, about 21 succeed. The state also said youth vaping nearly tripled between 2013 and 2017.
But a mystery vaping illness has killed six people across the country, including one in Oregon, and hospitalized more than 380 others.
The cause continues to baffle authorities.
The Trump Administration wants to ban flavored e-cigarettes, a step favored by the Oregon Health Authority. But Oregon Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden signed onto a letter to federal health authorities saying they failed to act swiftly enough to protect youth.
Merkley said tough action is now needed on e-cigarettes.
“So they were designed to addict children to nicotine, which leads to lifetime health issues and they should never have been marketed in the first place,” Merkley said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is advising consumers to avoid vape products containing THC and products that contain Vitamin E acetate.
The CDC goes further and tells people to consider not vaping at all.
But both federal agencies are still collecting data and don’t yet know what the problem is.
Paul Bates owns Division Vapor in southeast Portland. He said he doesn’t sell to people under 21 and he thinks the federal government is casting much too wide a net to deal with this problem.
“The CDC has said to people not to vape. But that doesn’t take into account that this … is a black market THC problem. And attempting to bootstrap into a negative opinion of e-cigarettes, seems a bit dishonest to me,” Bates said.
While federal health agencies remain reluctant to draw definitive conclusions, the FDA gave specific warnings to back up Bates’ theory in a recent advisory. The warning is based on the possibility there’s a connection between Vitamin E acetate, THC and the vaping illnesses.
“While the FDA does not have enough data presently to conclude that Vitamin E acetate is the cause of the lung injury in these cases, the agency believes it is prudent to avoid inhaling this substance,” the FDA said.
“Because consumers cannot be sure whether any THC vaping products may contain Vitamin E acetate, consumers are urged to avoid buying vaping products on the street, and to refrain from using THC oil or modifying/adding any substances to products purchased in stores,” the FDA advisory concluded.
While scientists and authorities continue to look for the exact causes, Bates suggests the problem may be linked to new thickeners and extraction processes that now make vaping THC easier.
“Those products may be behind this problem with lung issues.”
Those who sell THC vaping products see things differently.
At the Little Amsterdam Wellness Dispensary in southwest Portland, store manager Monica Gayda said she’s hearing from worried customers.
“We do not want people getting sick. We absolutely are getting test results from everybody, every company we buy cartridges from. I do think that Oregon is pretty stringent on their policies of what’s accepted in a legal dispensary,” Gayda said.
The Oregon Health Authority requires manufacturers test for pesticides, solvents and other chemicals.
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which oversees the state’s recreational cannabis industry, released a flyer Thursday warning certain customer groups against using e-cigarettes, including “youth and young adults,” “women who are pregnant” and people who aren’t already tobacco consumers.
Gayda said her sales haven’t been affected so far. But she’s heard of some people getting rid of their vape pens and she’d like the government to figure out what’s going on – so she can focus on business.
She agrees with the FDA, that maybe the problem is with unregulated products.
“It could even be people making their own in their own home. Maybe looking it up online, YouTube. Seeing how they can make their own oil. Trying to cut back on costs,” Gayda suggested.
She doesn’t think there’s a big problem with adults mixing their own cannabis vape, mainly because it’s legal in Oregon.
“But I would assume if it is happening it might be happening with the younger generation. People that legally can’t come in and buy cannabis right now because they’re under the age of 21,” Gayda said.
She also thinks adults who live in states where cannabis is illegal may be mixing THC and vape oils at home.
Federal authorities are still testing scores of vape oil samples to try to figure out what’s clogging up people’s lungs.