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SPECIAL REPORT: Vaping in central Wisconsin

MARATHON COUNTY (WAOW) — There are plenty of rumors around what’s behind the current vaping epidemic, but federal and local agencies are still hesitate to pinpoint what’s making people sick.

Since vaping deaths have made headlines, the investigation has caused confusion, disrupted an industry and led some to ignore calls to stop vaping altogether — for better or for worse.

Even a decade after vaping turned mainstream, it’s still causing plenty of debate — specifically its popularity with youth. As concerns grow, however, so does the impact.

“Across the industry, sales are down anywhere between 50- 80 percent,” said Alex Clark, CEO of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association.

The first isolated cases of vaping patients in emergency rooms started in Milwaukee. They complained of shortness of breath, chest pain and nausea, and doctors even found fluid in their lungs.

“It causes a sort of chemical drowning over time,” said Dr. David Polomis, a pulmonologist with Marshfield Clinic.

“With this investigation, it really has gone much broader,” said Dr. Jon Meiman, chief medical officer for Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

The current count shows 87 probable or confirmed cases in Wisconsin with another 15 under investigation, including cases in Portage, Marathon and Adams county.

Nationally, it’s even worse: over 2,000 people are sick, and 40 have died,according to the Associated Press.

The reaction was immediate, as health care agencies have made it a point for people to avoid all vaping products. Health professionals say they were shocked by the illnesses.

“They’re going to come in; they can’t breathe, they can’t exchange oxygen. It puts them in a difficult place (and) it puts us, as caregivers, in a difficult place,” said Sarah Schroeder, a respiratory therapist with Aspirus.

With everything happening so quickly, the medical community didn’t know what to expect.

“Because they have toxins in their body and we have to get in and remove them, not knowing what’s in there, it makes it scary for everybody,” said Schroeder.

New studies report most of these vaping illness cases involved THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Studies found black market vaping cartridges are likely to be filled with THC oils, often mixed with chemicals like vitamin E acetate and possibly containing heavy metals.

“They don’t know what they are inhaling,” said Dr. Meiman.

But the packaging suggests something entirely different.

“This packaging can be purchased off the internet. They will go under a host of different names and, when people buy it from dealers or their friends, they don’t know what product it is they are using,” said Dr. Meiman.

Wausau police say illegal vapes are not a big city issue. The department reports confiscating hundreds of cartridges this year alone, however.

“It is prevalent; we are seeing it,” said Lt. Melinda Pauls of the Wausau Police Department. “We’ve definitely seen an uprise — this year, especially.”.

An example includes a violent incident back in July happening near Langsdorf Street in Wausau involving a minor, a gun and THC cartridges.

“Really, there is no age boundary. Unfortunately, these things are really easy to get,” said Lt. Pauls.

Through the headlines, members of the vaping industry believes they’ve been caught in the crosshairs and believe they share a similar goal of health officials — to help break away from addiction and prevent sickness.

“We’ve even had reports from shop owners saying that they have customers of theirs, who have been regular customers for the past few years. They’ve walked into their shop, walked up to the counter, lit up a cigarette and said, ‘You lied to us’ and walked out,” said Clark.

“If I never found vaping, I would still be smoking to this day,” said Cody Lacrosse, an employee at Vapour Lounge in Wausau. “There’s gonna be people that are trying to cut corners somewhere, and somewhere along the line. People just need to know; they need to know where to get a clean product.”

Health professionals say they still can’t rule out nicotine products being to blame. Some of those who became sick reported only using nicotine products, according to the CDC.

“The safest thing is clearly not to use electronic cigarettes. Whether that’s safer than smoking cigarettes is a debatable question,” said Dr. Polomis.

But many that vape believe such is not the case, and feel the reports are just another hurdle the industry has faced.

“I’m still vaping to this day, and I have no intentions of quitting,” said Lacrosse.

The growing debate is likely to continue as officials struggle to find the answer.

Chase McNamara

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