Dallas County, at least to the extent that its county commissioners have a say, is ready to do something about e-cigarette and vape use. They made that much clear at their twice-monthly meeting Tuesday, whether anyone is sure about what's causing the illnesses likely tied to the practice or not.
Things got started Tuesday with an update from Dr. Philip Huang, the head of Dallas County Health and Human Services, about the recent rash of e-cigarette-related illnesses in Dallas County and around the country.
Through Monday, Dallas County hospitals have treated 17 people for illnesses doctors think are likely related to those people's use of e-cigarettes. Seven of those people have been intubated for lung issues, Huang said.
Nationwide, 450 cases of pulmonary illness possibly related to vaping have been reported in 32 states, as of Sept. 6, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Five people have died from the illnesses, but neither CDC nor Dallas County officials have determined what's causing the outbreak.
The majority of those afflicted in Dallas County are both male and underage, something Huang blamed, in part, on the way some nicotine- and THC-containing vape cartridges are packaged and sold.
"These are clearly marketed to youth," Huang said.
County Commissioner John Wiley Price compared the way e-cigarettes are being marketed to the way makers of combustible cigarettes have targeted black communities with campaigns advertising menthol cigarettes.
Huang accepted the comparison, but noted that, of the cases in Dallas County, the majority of patients coming into hospitals seeking treatment have been Hispanic.
"The history of marketing the menthol flavor specifically to the African American community — I think it's estimated that about 80% of the products that are used by African Americans are menthol — it's all marketing. I have strong concerns about additional health effects associated with menthol products," Huang said. "These are targeted to children, but there are menthol products in the vaping liquid (market)."
Price struggled to see the difference between e-cigarette use and smoking.
"The baseline you keep saying is nicotine," Price said. "The nicotine and menthol has been marketed to certain communities for years. Now, all the sudden, it's 'Katy, bar the door.' I just find it peculiar."
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While Huang didn't suggest any potential policy changes for Dallas County, Commissioner Elba Garcia clearly had her mind made up.
"It's clear that it should be banned, and the faster the better," Garcia said. "This is going to be the beginning of an epidemic, just like opioids ... This is exactly the same thing. A marketing campaign targeted to make money."
Garcia's colleague on the commission, JJ Koch, said that the county should consider targeting vape retailers.
"At some point, we need to have a follow-up discussion about what we're going to do from a law enforcement perspective," Koch said. "Clearly the popularity of vaping has to do with the fact that you can't really smell it or — if you're trying to get THC, and that's really upsetting to law enforcement — you can't smell anything about. The kids get away with it and the parents can't tell. We're going to have to do something at the store level."