Photo by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash

At this writing, three people have died and hundreds more have become ill from a mysterious lung ailment that is connected with certain types of e-cigarettes. The victims typically have nausea or vomiting at first, then difficulty breathing. Many end up in emergency rooms and hospitals because of lung damage.

Most of the sufferers are young people in their teens and twenties, and all were found to have been using vaping products in the previous three months. Many but not all were using e-cigarettes laced with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Others were vaping only nicotine, but some early analysis indicates that a substance called vitamin-E acetate was found in many of the users' devices.

It's possible that this oily compound is at fault, but investigators at the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not reached any conclusions yet.

In fact, the two agencies have released different recommendations in response to the crisis. The CDC is warning consumers to stay away from all e-cigarettes, but the FDA is limiting its cautions to those containing THC. Regardless, it looks like the vaping party has received a damper that may change a lot of things.

So far, vaping and the e-cigarette industry is largely unregulated, unlike the tobacco industry. It found its first mass market in China in the early 2000s. The technology was made possible by the development of high-energy-density lithium batteries, among other things. While vaporizers for medical use have been around since at least the 1920s, it wasn't possible to squeeze everything needed into a cigarette-size package until about fifteen years ago.

Since then, vaping has taken off among young people. A recent survey of US 12th-graders shows that about 20 percent of them have vaped in the last 30 days, and this is up from only about 11 percent in 2017, the sharpest two-year increase in the use of any drug that the National Institutes of Health has measured in its forty-some-odd year history of doing such surveys.

The ethical question of the hour is this: has vaping become popular enough, mature enough, and dangerous enough, that some kind of regulation (either industrial self-policing or governmental oversight) is needed? The answer doesn't hinge only on technical questions, but on one's political philosophy as well.

Take the extreme libertarian position, for example. Libertarians start out by opposing all government activity of any kind, and then grudgingly allow certain unavoidable activities that are needed for a nation to be regarded as a nation: national defense, for instance. It's not reasonable to expect every household to defend itself against foreign aggression, so most libertarians admit the necessity of maintaining national defence in a collective way.

But on an issue such as a consumer product, the libertarian view is “caveat emptor”—let the buyer beware. If you choose to buy an off-brand e-cigarette because it promises to have more THC in it than the next guy's does, that's your business. And if there's risk involved, well, people do all sorts of risky things that the government pays no attention to: telling your wife “that dress makes you look fat” is one example that comes to mind.

On the opposite extreme is the nanny-state model, favoured generally by left-of-centre partisans who see most private enterprises, especially large ones, as the enemy, and feel that government's responsibility is to even out the unfair advantage that huge companies have over the individual consumer. These folks would regulate almost anything you buy and have government-paid inspectors constantly checking for quality and value and so on.

It's impractical to run your own bacteriological lab to inspect your own hamburgers and skim milk, so the government is supposed to do that for you. Arguably, it's also impractical for vapers to take samples of their e-cigarette's goop and send it to a chemical lab for testing, and then decide on the basis of the results whether it's safe to use that particular product.

My guess at this point is that sooner or later, probably sooner, the e-cigarette industry is going to find itself subject to government standards for something. Exactly what isn't clear yet, because we do not yet know what exactly is causing the mysterious vaping illnesses and deaths. But when we do, you can bet there will be lawsuits, at a minimum, and at least calls for regulation of the industry.

Whether or not those calls are heeded will depend partly on the way the industry reacts. Juul, currently the largest maker of vaping products, is one-third owned by the corporate entity formerly known as Philip Morris Companies. In other words, the tobacco makers have seen the vaping handwriting on the wall and are moving into the new business as their conventional tobacco product sales flatten or decline.

The tobacco companies gained a prominent place in the Unethical Hall of Fame when they engaged in a decades-long campaign of disinformation to combat the idea that smoking could hurt or kill you, despite having inside information that it very well could. In the face of an ongoing disaster such as the vaping illness, this ploy doesn't work so well. But they could claim that only disreputable firms would sell vaping products that cause immediate harm and pay for studies that show it's better than smoking and harmless for the vast majority of users.

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is be patient, and that's what we need to do right now, rather than rushing to conclusions that aren't supported by clinical evidence. Investigators should eventually figure out what exactly is going on with the sick and dying vapers, and once we know that, we'll at least have something to act on. Until then, if by chance anyone under 30 is reading this blog, take my advice: leave those e-cigarettes alone.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in theiTunes store.  

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...