TYLER, Texas (KETK) – Vaping is in the news and public conversation these days.

New accounts of illnesses or deaths related to the habit seem to break every day, leading to ever more questions.

Is it the safer alternative to smoking it was originally considered? Or is it another ticking time bomb like the cigarettes it was supposed to replace?

In an exclusive digital special, KETK News with anchor Kaci Koviak convened a roundtable panel of guests to examine the issue from a variety of viewpoints – a medical doctor, the grandfather of a Tyler girl hospitalized for what is being called “vaping-related illness,” a high school principal and a vape store owner.

KETK is trying to bring clarity to this subject. What is vaping? And how dangerous is it?

Seven people in six states have died from lung diseases traced back to vaping, and more than 500 people have been diagnosed with vaping-related illnesses.

Among those who have fallen ill is a Tyler teen, Whitney Livingston, 17. She was in a Dallas hospital for days and on a ventilator, her lungs damaged by vaping.
“She was smoking cigarettes, and I thought it was safe for her to smoke something else,” said Jennifer Audas, Whitney’s mother.

Whitney is recovering and has been released from the hospital, but her case highlights the growing national concern over vaping.

The FDA has launched a criminal investigation. The CDC is investigating 380 cases of vaping-related illness. New York and Michigan this week banned the sale of almost all flavored vape liquids

“I’m not waiting for the federal government to come protect the people of the State of New York,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

But not everyone is on board with the rising alarm. Vaping advocates say taking away the flavored liquids will not stop youth vaping and that banning youth from using e-cigarettes will not work.

Medical experts, however, are urging young people to quit, or never to start in the first place, and consider it a serious health risk.

The CDC is investigating 380 cases of vaping-related illness, many involving previously young people.

“That’s the same age group that’s been vaping the most across the country,” said Dr. Humberto Choi of the Cleveland Health Clinic.

“The message that vaping is safer than tobacco use is a common misconception,” said Dale Perry, Whitney Livingston’s grandfather. “ithink we’re all finding out now that there’s more to it than just cigarettes.”

“The really troubling thing is that we’re seeing a really wide variety of presentations and symptoms,” said Dr. Gary Schwartz of Baylor Medical Center in Dallas. “We’re seeing everything from what we call run-of-the-mill pneumonia to abscesses or infections of the lungs, collapsed lung and florid lung failure requiring extensive support. So the spectrum of this disease is really what’s most terrifying to health care professionals.”

Schwartz said the most common symptoms health professionals are seeing include shortness of breath, difficulty catching your breath and decreased exercise function. They are also seeing fever, coughing up blood, extreme mucus production, weight loss, and symptoms that seem to mirror gastrointestinal distress.

He said that the most common age group affected by the illness seems to be young people in their 20s and 30s.

“We’re not seeing many patients older than that, so we do think that’s something related to that age group for sure,” said Dr. Schwartz. “we’re also seeing patterns among what products are being used, such as products with THC or CBD in them, though that hasn’t been confirmed yet.”

Vaping among young people has become a particular concern among parents and educators. The design of such e-cigarettes as Juul makes vaping among students, even in classrooms, easy to disguise or conceal, forcing school administrators to come up with strategies to combat the practice.

“We try to be proactive and talk to students,” said Josh Garrad, principal at Whitehouse High School. “We’re looking at implementing new programs so when students are caught with vapes it’s not just them going to in-school suspension or it’s not just them having other consequences, but it’s also us trying to educate them on some of the health consequences as well as the addiction issue.”

Vaping isn’t exactly new. The practice has been around for more than a decade, but it has really taken off in terms of popularity and widespread practice over the past few years.

Roy Husstetler, owner of Bullard Vapor vape shop, said the majority of his customers are over the age of 40, and many are vaping in order to quit smoking.

But what, exactly, is vaping? What are the devices and what is the “juice” that’s getting so much attention?

An e-cigarette or vape stick is powered by a battery that, when triggered, fires an electronic current that superheats the “juice,” turning it into vapor, which is then inhaled into the lungs. It is a smoking experience that lacks the tar and carcinogenic ingredients of a cigarette, but comes with a laundry list of other chemicals that is still being cataloged.

The common ingredient between the two, however, is nicotine, which is as addictive in vapes as it is in cigarettes.

The American Vaping Association takes issue with the increasing fear over vaping, saying the real problem comes from juices that contain THC or other synthetic drugs, rather than the juices purchased from vape stores.

Because vaping has flown under the radar for so long, research into it is still new and still spotty. The FDA and CDC have launched new initiatives, but conclusions, so far, are lacking.

In order to answer the questions, more information is needed.

“I think we all agree on the health side of the issue that this is one of the worst epidemics that we’ve seen in public health recently,” said Dr. Schwartz. “Without coverage by media stations like yours and without going into schools and dealing with teenagers, there’s no way we’re going to be able to fight this.”