A couple of months ago, I was having a conversation in the cramped hallway of my apartment with one of my roommate’s friends. As a Juul was passed around, we discussed the frequent news stories that spoke of vaping-related illnesses. I opined that, of the problems with vaping, one is that we haven’t had the chance to observe many long-term studies on its effects, since it’s still an emerging market; we are practically the guinea pigs of this new experiment in nicotine delivery. He agreed with me, then followed up with his thought that vaping was probably more dangerous than smoking; something about cigarettes just seemed more “natural” to him. That’s when I felt something was wrong.
He, like many others I know or have witnessed on Twitter, had just thrown out his personal vape device. While that didn’t stop him from hitting a Juul in our hallway later that evening, he was still convinced he had turned a new leaf and was moving into the future more health-conscious than before. Yet, still wanting to quench his craving for nicotine, he considered buying a pack of cigarettes. Recent news had spooked him and he would have rather hedged his bets with a vice we knew the effects of rather than one we didn’t, like vaping. But had media “hysteria” skewed his attitude toward thinking something posed a greater risk than it actually did?
The media-fueled vaping panic hit its peak in the beginning of mid-September. Major news outlets across the board were declaring that a mysterious, vape-related lung disease was becoming an “epidemic.” At the time the news agencies started to cover the story, six people had died due to this mysterious lung disease. The number has since risen to 47 and counting. What exactly is leading to these deaths, though?
Around the time of the first reports in September, findings pointed toward the chemical vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent used in unregulated, black-market THC vape cartridges. Since then, the CDC has confirmed it as the culprit. Despite there being reports as early as Sept. 6 blaming the chemical agent for the numerous deaths, major outlets still continued to generalize the problem in headlines to all vaping devices.
Brittany Shaughnessy, a first-year graduate student in the communications program focusing on media effects in politics, spoke to why she thinks this is.
“I think they were framing it in a way that was going to continue the news cycle, ‘vaping,’” Shaughnessy said. “I think they were framing it in a way where people would keep paying attention to the stories as they came out. I think they were purposely framing it in a very broad sort of manner so that when they reveal a development, whether it’s new or not, they’re going to get the ratings; they’re going to get the views; they’re going to get everything they need.”
In a media landscape thirsting for clicks, news agencies are also likely to broaden an appeal to fear to encapsulate a larger audience.
Shaughnessy also shared communication theories that helped explain the recent coverage.
“What Agenda-Setting Theory states is that the media sets an agenda to shape public perception, so by covering these vaping crises and covering them the way that they are, the media companies are sending the message that this is the most important issue facing college students or those who vape, that it could cause potential death … I think it’s agenda-setting at work,” Shaughnessy said.
The coverage did not only strike a chord with college students and those who vape; the President of the United States himself seemed to let the headlines get to him as well. As reported by USA Today, on Sept. 11th of this year, President Trump said he and his administration would move forward with a plan to ban flavored e-cigarette products.
“It's causing a lot of problems and we're going to have to do something about it,” Trump said, following a meeting with health policy advisers. “There have been deaths and there have been a lot of other problems.”
Despite reneging on this plan earlier this week, Trump and countless others at the time seemed to be slightly out of touch with the actual issue, caught up in a media frenzy. This kind of reaction is not entirely uncommon, though; moral panic incited by the media has gripped this country time and time again in recent history.
It is important to understand the current frenzy we are in presently and to inoculate ourselves against the half-truths and aspects that don’t completely align with reality. Our judgements might be shaded the wrong way if we blindly accept appeals to fear.
Harkening back to my anecdote at the beginning of this piece, the person I was in conversation with was under the impression that cigarettes might actually be less harmful than vaping. The CDC still holds the stance that e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes in lieu of widespread concern. Taking on the perception that cigarettes “just seem more natural,” the CDC also reminds us that cigarettes are composed of a cocktail of over 7,000 chemicals, including the likes of arsenic, which is commonly used in pesticides or rat poison, whereas vapes are believed to contain far less chemicals.
The panic surrounding vaping created an endless stream of headlines, but concerns seem to have mostly been misplaced. Sure, the death toll related to vaping continues to rise, but the evidence points to the fact that all of those cases pertain to THC vape cartridges sold on the black market, not necessarily nicotine devices –– THC cartridges are what warrant concern.
THC vape cartridges are typically filled with a thick liquid marijuana extract resembling honey called distillate. Although these cartridges are said to contain pure distillate extract, if they are not regulated in legal markets or they are sold on the black market there is effectively no way to tell what is actually in the liquid unless they are brought to a lab. Often, sellers on the black market would add vitamin E acetate to thicken or dilute the extract within the cartridges.
Users are taking risks ingesting unregulated products that contain mystery substances, and are losing big. Although the cartridges appeal to many because of their accessibility and lack of smell, making them a hot commodity among dorm residents, using them is ultimately tempting fate. And if you are someone who lives on campus and uses these products just for a convenient way to ingest marijuana, it’s simple; stop