State takes on flavored e-cigarettes in wake of vaping-caused illnesses

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Jonathan Doneson (center) of Roslyn Heights nearly died after several months of THC vaping. He is flanked by Dr. Annamaria Iakovou (left) and Dr. Mina Makaryus (right). (Photo courtesy of Northwell Health)

A resident of Roslyn Heights who nearly died due to vaping THC for several months spoke out last Thursday, the same day that Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an emergency executive order that bans flavored electronic cigarettes from sale in the state.

Jonathan Doneson, 52, of Roslyn Heights, used a vape pen to calm his nerves following the stress of starting a new business with his wife, he said at a news conference at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. He began vaping tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, a chemical in marijuana known for its effect on dopamine receptors in the brain.

Shortly after a trip abroad over the summer, Doneson said he began to suffer from “night sweats,” and felt “feverish and in pain.” When treatments for bronchitis failed to yield results, Doneson was forced to go to the emergency room at North Shore on Aug. 22.

Doctors grew concerned when he didn’t respond to a usual course of antibiotics. He only began to progress after Dr. Mina Makaryus, a pulmonologist at North Shore, found out about Doneson’s habit.

“No one could figure out why the antibiotics weren’t working,” Doneson said. “When Dr. Makaryus asked me about my smoking or drinking habits, I told him that I had started using a THC vaping pen about a month earlier.”

Once Makaryus made the connection, Doneson bounced back quickly, he said, and returned home three weeks after being admitted.

Dr. Annamaria Iakovou, a pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine physician at North Shore, said that Doneson’s case was not the first vaping-related illness seen in the Northwell Health system.

“Over the past three months, we have encountered over a dozen cases of lung disease in otherwise young and healthy individuals,” Iakovou said. “These patients presented similarly with symptoms of cough, fever and shortness of breath, often associated with gastrointestinal symptoms. The majority reported vaping THC containing oils, but some were also using e-cigarettes containing nicotine, with or without THC.”

Later that day, Cuomo issued an executive order banning the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, citing a concern for public health and saying the products may affect the “great strides” made in reducing smoking in the state.

“The New York State Department of Health has received numerous reports from New York State physicians of severe pulmonary (lung-related) illness among patients ranging from 15 to 46 years of age, totaling 54 cases,” the order reads.

A news release said the order was issued “to combat the increasing number of youth using vape products, largely driven by e-cigarette companies marketing flavors that are intended to get children addicted to nicotine.” Cuomo also noted the increasing number of underage youths who managed to acquire vaping pens.

“Manufacturers of fruit and candy-flavored e-cigarettes are intentionally and recklessly targeting young people, and today we’re taking action to put an end to it,” Cuomo said. “At the same time, unscrupulous stores are knowingly selling vaping products to underage youth – those retailers are now on notice that we are ramping up enforcement and they will be caught and prosecuted.”

Local leaders have voiced support for the governor’s stance. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen issued a joint statement on the action.

“The surge in e-cigarette use among teens and children has been undeniable and alarming, and we thank Governor Cuomo for taking this problem on with bold leadership,” the statement read. “Both Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead are committed to protecting our children from a lifetime of nicotine addiction and the many associated health risks that e-cigarettes bring. We will continue fighting back against the big tobacco companies using aggressive marketing to get a whole new generation hooked on their toxic products.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 380 confirmed cases of vaping-induced lung illnesses in 36 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands, including six deaths, last Thursday.

Doneson said he has thrown away his vaping pen.

“I’m thinking of these THC vaping pens as chronic suicide,” Doneson said. “These things are not safe, they are killing people. If you are using them, throw them away immediately. If your kids are using them, just throw them away. They are dangerous.”

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