A 20-year-old former star high school athlete from southeastern Wisconsin is hospitalized in Florida with severe lung injuries he and his family believe are linked to vaping.
The man’s father said he is in shock over how fast his otherwise healthy, athletic son got sick.
“Last Wednesday, he was doing 25 to 30 pullups a day. And on Friday, there’s talk of him being intubated,” he said in an interview. “That’s how quick it goes.”
He and his son asked the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel not to name them due to privacy concerns. Hospital officials declined to comment and would not confirm whether doctors suspected the man’s illness was linked to vaping.
The man said he had a fever and chills for days and was diagnosed by a private doctor with pneumonia early last week. He kept getting worse despite treatment, he said.
“I was in so much pain. I could barely breathe,” he told the Journal Sentinel on Wednesday. “I was feeling like I was going to die, honestly.”
He was rushed to the hospital late last week and admitted to the intensive care unit, he said.
According to his father, that’s when doctors suspected his son’s illness might be a case of lung injury linked to vaping. Federal officials said Friday there were 193 potential cases of lung ailments linked to e-cigarettes reported by 22 states.
“I definitely want to shed light on this. It’s serious,” the 20-year-old said. “I definitely want everyone to know. They can’t overlook how dangerous it is.”
He said he started vaping after his sophomore year in high school, where he excelled in sports. He spoke to the Journal Sentinel on the condition that the newspaper not publish information that would reveal his identity.
He recently had been using Juul and refilling pods with vape juice that he had purchased at local vape stores. He also vaped oils with THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis — an activity known as “dabbing.”
Officials with the Florida Department of Health told the Journal Sentinel on Wednesday they were “working with partners to assess” reports of vaping-related lung injuries in teens and young people in the state.
In July, the Journal Sentinel first reported cases of teenagers in Wisconsin who had experienced lung injuries after vaping. An investigation by the newspaper in 2015 found doctors in West Virginia and Vermont had documented two cases of severe lung injuries they suspected were tied to vaping cinnamon and other flavors of e-liquids.
The newspaper’s investigation also revealed that e-liquids sometimes contain flavoring chemicals known for causing irreversible lung damage. The chemicals, diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione, were found in products, in some cases, even when companies advertised their products were diacetyl-free.
Since the recent reports of vaping-related lung injuries in Wisconsin, similar accounts have emerged across the country. Many have involved young people vaping e-cigarettes as well as oils with THC.
The 20-year-old from Wisconsin said he expects to remain hospitalized for several more days.
“The doctors are saying how lucky I am to be given another opportunity,” he said. “My CAT scan looked like a 70-year-old’s lungs. That’s what they said to me.”
He said he vaped because it helped with his anxiety. He said he tried to limit his use because he feared the danger, not using more than one pod with nicotine every couple of days and about three to four THC cartridges per month.
“Obviously, I’m embarrassed,” he said.
His father said he is especially angry at the way vaping is being marketed as a safer alternative to cigarettes.
“You’d be better off just handing your kid a pack of smokes and a quarter ounce of weed and some rolling papers,” he said. “Hopefully, every parent, brother, sister, et cetera, will learn from this experience and encourage their loved ones to stop vaping immediately.”
Lawsuits piling up
More than 400 teens and young people from across the country have contacted a law firm in Illinois in the last several weeks describing debilitating physical and psychological effects they said surfaced after weeks or months of vaping, according to Jacob Plattenberger, an attorney with TorHoerman Law in Chicago.
In three of the cases filed in the Southern District of Illinois last week, men in their teens and early 20s — previously healthy and athletic — reported respiratory illnesses, extreme irritability and severe addiction within months of beginning to vape.
In one case, a young man allegedly suffered seizures.
The lawsuits name Juul Labs and its largest stakeholder, Altria, as defendants as well as Philip Morris, a spinoff of Altria. The suits focus on product liability, citing “failure to warn,” “design defect” and “negligent marketing” among other allegations.
All three complaints state: “These injuries resulted from the defendants’ orchestrated efforts to addict a new generation of teenagers and young adults to nicotine.”
The complaints allege Juul manipulated nicotine delivery, much like conventional cigarette companies did years ago, to deliberately hook consumers. Juul also adopted marketing strategies similar to those once used by tobacco companies, the suits say.
Despite the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory suggesting that e-cigarettes are not safe for people under the age of 26, Juul purposefully targeted its advertising to teens and young adults, the lawsuits allege.
“Following the wildly successful playbook laid out in historic cigarette industry documents, Defendant leveraged social media and utilized other marketing and promotion tactics, long outlawed for cigarette companies, to capture the highly-lucrative youth market,” the complaints state. “JUUL preyed on youth using media and themes that exploit teenagers’ vulnerabilities to create and sustain nicotine addiction, all for financial gain, and without giving kids any warnings about the serious risks of addiction, stroke, and other permanent injuries.”
A representative of Juul said in a written response to the Journal Sentinel on Tuesday that Juul is focused on eliminating combustible cigarettes.
“Our product has always only been intended to be a viable alternative for the one billion current adult smokers in the world,” the statement said. “We believe these lawsuits are without merit and we look forward to addressing them in court.”
Plattenberger said teens as young as 16 have contacted his law firm describing addiction and suspected injuries but that some don’t want their parents to know.
The main injury that victims are citing is lung collapse, he said.
In an interview with the Journal Sentinel, one of the plaintiffs, Austin Sidlo, said his obsession with Juul started when a friend suggested he use it to help him curtail his snacking habit. As a 17-year-old high school basketball and baseball player, Sidlo said he was eating constantly.
“I started putting on quite a bit of weight without realizing it,” he said.
Sidlo said vaping Juul cut his appetite and also relaxed him.
Before he knew it he was vaping two pods a day, he said, then four. He said he was thinking about vaping constantly.
But he started to feel short of breath and tired. “I was running out of energy,” he said.
It wasn’t until he turned 18 and moved out of his parents’ house to his own apartment in Springfield, Illinois — and paying his own bills — that he recognized how much he was spending on Juul: more than $100 a week.
He switched to a cheaper vaping system. And now, a year later, the 19-year-old says he’s still addicted to nicotine.
“I can’t go anywhere without having my vape on me,” he said. “I carry it with me all day. It became part of my everyday routine.”
Sidlo said he’s tried to quit multiple times but without success. He said that without nicotine, he gets frustrated, irritable and angry.
“I feel like my behavior changes when I try,” he said of quitting. “My friends were like, ‘What did you do that made you so angry?'”
Raquel Rutledge & Mary Spicuzza/Journal Sentinel