As vaping illnesses rise, so do pleas to stop-smoking help lines


National News

October 16, 2019 - 10:02 AM

One Juul pod provides about 200 puffs and can contain as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. KAISER HEALTH NEWS/ANA B. IBARRA/TNS

“I stopped for a few days and then I ended up buying new pods. The withdrawals got to me.”

“My friends are the ones who got me into vaping. And they think I shouldn’t stop, but I want to because I don’t want to hurt my family if I get sick.”

“I feel like I get winded easily and I just know it’s not good for me. I want to quit so bad but it’s really hard when all your friends are vaping around you.”

These are just a few of the messages that teen vapers texted in September to the new “My Life, My Quit” program, which offers phone, text and chat lines to young people trying to quit smoking in 13 states.

Even though “quitlines” were designed to help people kick cigarette habits, calls and texts from people who use e-cigarettes are climbing as more people fall ill with a mysterious and devastating respiratory illness linked to vaping.

Health officials are investigating 1,299 cases in 49 states and the District of Columbia, including at least 26 deaths. In California, more than 120 residents have fallen ill, at least three of whom died, according to the California Department of Public Health.

The department in September called on everyone to refrain from vaping, “no matter the substance or source,” while the investigations continue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also advised people to “consider refraining” from using e-cigarette products, especially those that contain THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, which has been linked to most of the illnesses.

The rise in calls to help lines means the message is penetrating, said Stanton Glantz, director of the University of California-San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

“The more we learn about e-cigarettes, the more dangerous they look,” Glantz said. “Callers are right to be worried, frankly.”

Optum, which operates tobacco quitlines for 23 states and the District of Columbia and for more than 1,000 employers, logged a 50% increase in callers asking for help to quit vaping since the CDC released its first report on the illnesses in early September, said Seth Serxner, the company’s chief health officer.

The majority of state quitlines are run by Optum or National Jewish Health, a respiratory research hospital in Denver, whose My Life, My Quit program is aimed at youths. National Jewish Health runs help lines for 16 states — not all of which offer My Life, My Quit — enrolling about 100,000 people each year into tobacco cessation programs.

The quitlines are publicly funded, and the counseling is free.

Almost 20% of callers to Optum’s help lines said they used vapes, up from 3% during the same period in 2015, Serxner said.

“People are going, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know this was that bad for me,’” he said.

In July, National Jewish Health enrolled 88 people into its cessation program who said they vaped exclusively. In August and September combined, the organization enrolled 457 people who vaped exclusively, more than five times the July figure, said Thomas Ylioja, clinical director for health initiatives at the organization.

Calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW routes callers to counselors in their state, where they can get counseling to help them set quit dates and identify triggers that could lead to a relapse. If clients give permission, counselors follow up with them in the days and weeks after their initial call, when quitting can be most difficult.

Depending on where callers live and what kind of insurance they have, they may qualify for free nicotine replacement therapy, like patches, gum, lozenges or prescription medication. Vapes and e-cigarettes are not a federally approved treatment for smoking cessation, so help lines have not recommended them to clients to help them quit.

Not all state quitlines are seeing an uptick in calls. Calls from vapers were flat for West Virginia’s help line from July through September compared with the same period in 2018, said Lindsy Hatfield, program director for First Choice Services, which operates the state’s quitline.