Oregon vape death patient used THC device from dispensary

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon's public health physician said Wednesday that a person who died recently of severe respiratory illness had used a vaping device containing marijuana oil that was purchased at a legal dispensary.

The death is the second linked by public health officials nationwide to vaping and the first linked to a product purchased at a marijuana dispensary.

Public health authorities in Oregon haven't determined what sickened the middle-aged adult or whether the person may have added something to the liquid or tampered with the device after it was purchased, said Dr. Ann Thomas, a public health physician with the Oregon Health Authority.

Thomas declined to name the brand of the product or the dispensary where it was purchased, citing the ongoing investigation. It's the only case of vaping-related illness or death in Oregon that authorities are aware of right now, Thomas said.

"Our investigation has not yielded exactly what it is in this product," she said in a phone interview. "At this point, some of the other states have more data than us."

As of last week, 215 possible cases of severe pulmonary disease associated with the use of e-cigarettes had been reported by 25 states, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said Wednesday that he will introduce legislation next week that would tax e-cigarettes in the same way that traditional cigarettes are taxed to reduce their appeal to teenagers who are increasingly taking up the popular smoking alternative.

Oregon lawmakers passed state legislation this year to tax e-cigarettes, and the question will be referred to voters in 2020.

"The products are highly addictive. They're subject to minimal safety standards and oversights, exposing users to dangerous chemicals ... and they are getting into the hands of more and more young people," Wyden said.

The American Vaping Association said in a statement Wednesday that vaping products are "far less harmful than smoking" and have helped those addicted to traditional cigarettes break that habit.

"Making vaping products more expensive has not been shown to reduce experimentation by youth and will only lead to more adults continuing to smoke deadly combustible cigarettes," Gregory Conley, the association's president, said in an email.

Conley said the fact that the Oregon patient had vaped a product containing THC, the compound that gives marijuana its high, was a critical distinction. The association has blamed the recent spate of lung illnesses on illegal vape pens that contain THC.

"Oregon is far from the first state to specifically link recent serious lung illnesses to THC vaping products, but it is the first state to report a death or injury in a patient who purchased his or her products at a dispensary," Conley said.

Wisconsin public health officials said late last month that 89% of the people they interviewed who became sick reported using e-cigarettes or other vaping devices to inhale THC.

Under the law, marijuana dispensaries in Oregon can't sell products that have not been tested by state-accredited labs.

Mark Pettinger, the spokesman for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which oversees Oregon's general use marijuana industry, did not immediately return a call or email seeking comment.

In general, all marijuana intended for sale at a medical or general use dispensary is tested for pesticides and potency, as well as for solvents, if the product is not dried marijuana flower.

The rise in teen vaping has been driven mainly by flavored cartridge-based products such as Juul. The rechargeable, odorless device can be used discreetly in bathrooms, hallways and even classrooms.

Health experts say nicotine is harmful to developing brains. Researchers worry that addicted teens will eventually switch from vaping to smoking.

E-cigarettes, which have been available in the U.S. since about 2007 and have grown into a more than $6 billion-a-year industry, are battery-powered devices that typically heat a flavored nicotine solution into an inhalable aerosol. Juul, which launched in 2015, now controls roughly three-quarters of the U.S. retail market for e-cigarettes.

Most experts agree the aerosol is less harmful than cigarette smoke because it does not contain most of the cancer-causing byproducts of burning tobacco. But there is virtually no research on the long-term effects of the vaping chemicals, some of which are toxic.