The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is investigating the first known death linked with vaping, officials announced Friday as they warned the public to avoid e-cigarettes while research continues.
A total of 12 cases of vaping-associated pulmonary injury have been reported in L.A. County, and the death here is the fourth in the U.S. in the last two weeks, according to Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the public health department.
The announcement comes as health officials nationwide have been warning the public about the use of e-cigarettes, with officials saying they are aware at least 450 possible cases of severe lung disease in 33 states that could be caused by vaping.
Ferrer spoke along with a panel of other health officials at a news conference Friday to discuss the investigation into the vaping-linked illnesses and to issue a warning about the use of e-cigarette devices as "potentially harmful to proper lung function."
"We join with the Centers for Disease Control to advise people to stop vaping now until further information about what is causing lung damage and death can be understood," Ferrer said.
Dr. Muntu Davis, L.A. County health officer, said all but one of the 12 cases of "severe and sudden lung disease" involved the patients vaping a cannabis product.
On Thursday, health officials in New York said they had found “very high levels” of the chemical vitamin E acetate in nearly all cannabis-containing vaping products they had tested. The chemical is now “a key focus” of the department’s investigation into the illnesses.
L.A. County officials have not identified a specific product linked to the 12 local cases, but said more study is needed.
Davis said the patient who died was using a cannabis product, and described the patient as an "older adult who had chronic underlying health conditions, but it is clearly believed that vaping was a probable potential cause of death in this person."
The local patients were "crossing the gamut of age group and health," Davis said, with about two-thirds of the cases being teens and younger adults, while the remaining one-third were middle-aged and older adults.
He said the frequency of use was also a mix, ranging from everyday to infrequent use.
Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued a statement on Twitter, saying the CDC "believes that a chemical exposure is likely associated" with the illnesses, but said "more information is needed to determine which specific products or substances are involved."
"If you don't have to vape, don't do it right now," Davis said. "There really is a lot of unknowns, there's a lot of information that still needs to be gathered, and we think it's wise to stay away from this until we understand what the implications are."
While officials have identified 12 cases of vaping-linked illnesses in L.A. County, Ferrer said it is "completely possible" that the actual number is much higher, just that people recovered without hospitalization, or their illness wasn't known to be linked to vaping.
Ferrer said the emergence of e-cigarettes has been a massive blow to public health.
"E-cigarettes has really set us back years in our struggle to eliminate addiction to nicotine and tobacco products amongst our young people," she said.
When asked if smoking cigarettes could now be considered safer than vaping, officials responded with an emphatic "no."
"No way," Davis said.
"Cigarettes are still extraordinarily dangerous," Ferrer added.