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EDITORIAL: Science, not e-cigarette makers, must tell the public whether vaping is safe

Manufacturers insist e-cigarettes are safe. But recent cases of serious lung illnesses and neurological symptoms associated with vaping demand answers.

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A man smokes an electronic cigarette inside a vape shop. 
Alastair Pike/AFP/Getty Images

Are e-cigarettes and vaping truly safe?

Ever since electronic cigarettes hit the U.S. market about a decade ago, the industry has engaged in a full-court press to assure the public that yes, these devices are a safe alternative to tobacco cigarettes.

That smokers who want to quit can rest easy if they opt for e-cigarettes over nicotine patches, lozenges or gum.

Fast-forward to 2019. Almost 11 million Americans, many of them teens and young adults, use e-cigarettes. And the potential harm they could cause is scary: The Centers for Disease Control is investigating nearly 200 cases nationwide of severe lung problems associated with vaping, including 22 cases in Illinois.

One of those 22 cases led to a man’s death earlier this month right here in Illinois — the first vaping-related fatality in the country, the state Department of Public Health has reported.

The exact cause of the illnesses is still a mystery. Investigators “have not identified any specific product or compound that is linked to all cases,” the CDC said.

The vaping industry is eager to cast blame for the 200 problem cases on “black market” products.

“Each day of this crisis brings more evidence that street vapes containing THC or other illegal drugs are responsible for these illnesses, not nicotine vaping products,” the American Vaping Association’s president, Gregory Conley, said in a statement.

There’s no solid evidence to support that, though.

What’s more, the claims of e-cigarette safety have come from the manufacturers, who have tens of billions in revenue at stake.

The public needs independent scientists, not industry-paid so-called experts, to find out the truth.

Scientists from an independent, scientific institution, like the CDC. They’re the ones the public can trust to give us a definitive answer.

In the meantime, other serious health questions persist. A recently published study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine found that smoking even one nicotine-free e-cigarette can be harmful to a person’s blood vessels.

“While e-cigarette liquid may be relatively harmless, the vaporization process can transform the molecules . . . into toxic substances,” the study’s main investigator, professor Felix Wehrli, says. “Beyond the harmful effects of nicotine, we’ve shown that vaping has a sudden, immediate effect on the body’s vascular function, and could potentially lead to long-term harmful consequences.”

And the Food and Drug Administration earlier this year began investigating dozens of reports of seizures or other neurological symptoms, such as fainting or tremors, that may well be related to vaping.

Here are some other reasons not to trust the vaping industry’s word:

• Even though manufacturers repeatedly denied targeting young people as consumers of their products, they kept on making products with bubble gum, candy and other flavors popular with teens.

• The Vapor Technology Association, another trade group, sued the FDA earlier this month to keep the agency from reviewing the e-cigarettes currently on the market for safety.

It all sounds too much like Big Tobacco, before scientists stepped in and found that cigarettes cause cancer.

If adults want to vape, that’s their business. They can read the news and decide for themselves about any risk. We don’t see enough evidence to justify sweeping new vaping regulations, other than regulations to keep e-cigs out of the hands of minors.

Like we said, we and others have plenty of questions. The public needs independent scientists to answer them.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.