Will bad headlines kill vaping?

Justin Ward
4 min readSep 14, 2019
Man puts vape juice in his e-cigarette pin. (VapeClubMY / Unsplash)

After smoking for some 15 years, I made the switch to vaping a little over a week ago. Turns out I picked an inauspicious time to start. I was sitting at home pulling off my shiny new Vaperesso, reading the news on my phone when I stumbled across an alarming article in the Washington Post titled “Lung illness tied to vaping has killed 5 people as new case reports surge.”

I left the nozzle of the vape pen frozen on the edge of my lip as I read it. It seemed pretty serious: 450 cases. Thirty-three states. Five deaths.

But as I got deeper into the article it seemed pretty clear that the culprit was most likely wasn’t regular ol’ vape pens and juices that millions of people have been using for over a decade now. Statements from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) seemed to imply that the vast majority of the cases involved black market marijuana vape juices, and that they were looking at the possibility of “cutting agents.”

Further down, about seven paragraphs, we learn that New York State’s health department identified the adulterant vitamin E acetate in some samples.

A blog post WebMD released the same day took a more sensible approach to covering the issue. Titled “Vaping Cases Linked to Vitamin E, Bootleg Cartridges?”, the author avoids scaremongering about vaping and tries to focus in on the actual causes of the mysterious lung illnesses.

Instead of burying the lead, the writer kicks off the article thusly:

As vaping-related lung illnesses continue to climb in the U.S., public health officials are narrowing in on two possible links: vitamin E and black-market vape cartridges

The writes that vitamin E acetate was found in nearly all of the cases examined by New York health officials and that most cases involved bootleg juices purchased from unlicensed shops.

All of this information has been available to journalists for more than a week now but that hasn’t stopped the parade of headlines about a “surge” in “vaping-related illnesses” leading to a rising “death toll.”

Having written my fair share of headlines as a reporter and editor, I can’t really fault newspapers for some of these. As misleading as it is, the phrase “vaping-related illness” is at least accurate and…

Justin Ward

Journalist and activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN, USA Today. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD