Engineering Ethics Blog: Vaping Turns Deadly

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 U. S.
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  U. S. 12th-graders shows that about 20% of
them have vaped in the last 30 days, and this is up from only about 11% 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 defense 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, favored generally
by left-of-center 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. 

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