The first death caused by a vape-related illness occurred in Tennessee last week, the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) reported.
This comes as the number of lung illnesses related to vape or e-cigarette use continues to rise around the country. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites the number of cases at 1,479, resulting in 33 deaths.
In Tennessee, there have been 49 reported cases, according to the TDH. Four of those are in West Tennessee.
- Tennessee registered its first vape-related death last week.
The Tennessean who died last week, a resident of Middle Tennessee, suffered from "serious respiratory disease," according to the TDH, which did not provide any additional information about the patient.
Dr. Lisa Piercy, Tennessee Health Commissioner, offering condolences to the family, urged Tenneseans to avoid using vapes or e-cigarettes.
"We are extremely saddened by this loss of life and extend our sincere condolences to the patient's family," Piercy said. "We are working with partners across the country to investigate these cases of vaping-associated illnesses in Tennessee and recommend Tenneseans consider refraining from using e-cigarettes or vaping while this investigation is underway."
The CDC reports that most of the affected patients report using a vape containing THC — or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis — that was obtained off the street or from other "informal sources." These illicit vapes "play a major role in the outbreak."
However, the CDC does not yet know which specific chemicals are causing damage, as no single product has been linked to all of the cases.
Dr. Catherine Sanders, a pulmonology physician at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, said because vaping is relatively new, there isn't a lot of research that shows its long-term effects.
"We know that vaping can cause acute illnesses like we've seen, but we don't know much about the long-term effects of vaping yet because it's so new," Sanders said. "It's important for the public to know that there's so much the medical and science communities don't yet know about it. That's scary. You really take a gamble if you continue to vape."
At this point, Sanders said there is no evidence to support the idea that vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking regular cigarettes.
"It's important to know that vaping is not a safe alternative to smoking, which it has been considered before," Sanders said. "It's not this great way to quit smoking or a better way to start."
Clarissa Warren, director of operations for VaporWize, Memphis' first vape store, worries what all of this will mean for the industry — and ultimately the store's customers.
Warren believes that the products sold in the store's locations (more than a dozen of them) are safe. Warren said everything VaporWize sells is USDA-regulated: "We're not selling anything that's harmful to people."
"The biggest problem is that people are labeling these deaths saying they were caused by vaping," Warren said. "It's not vaping. It's not a legal product these people are dying from. It's the illegal cartridges from someone who made it in their house. That's the problem, and it's hurting our industry."