SALT LAKE CITY — Lung cancer used to be rare, and one Utah doctor said he would be happy to be out of a job should that be the case again someday.
“My hope is that we can be successful in reducing the burden of tobacco-related cancers,” Dr. Clarke Low, director of thoracic oncology at Intermountain Healthcare, said during the Cancer Action Network’s Utah Cancer Summit on Thursday. Lung cancer is a condition created by man, he said, and will require a similarly man-made solution.
Lung cancer remains the leading preventable cause of death, killing more people than alcohol, drugs, homicide, suicide and motor vehicle accidents combined, Low said.
And, while 17% of Americans smoke, according to the American Cancer Society, 85% of lung cancers are linked to that tobacco use.
The Utah Department of Health is continually working on ways to not only help people quit their nicotine habit, but to help prevent a new generation of Utahns from getting addicted. It seems they’ve got their hands full, as electronic cigarette use has grown to be wildly popular among youth.
Preliminary numbers show even more Utah youth are vaping, with a more than 1% increase from 2017 to 2018, to about 12.3% teens reporting daily use.
Utah law restricts access to vape and tobacco-related products until age 19 (it will be age 21 by 2021), but kids are getting them from friends, online dealers, vape shops, convenience stores, and out-of-state dispensaries. And, because e-cigarettes are unregulated, consumers don’t always know what they’re getting.
Another concern is that once addicted to nicotine contained in e-cigarette cartridges, kids will turn to traditional cigarettes.
Jordan Osborne, 25, grew up around tobacco, including friends and family who used it regularly. He decided at a young age that he would advocate against it, seeing how it affected those people in his life.
Around 19, he succumbed to the pressure to try what he believed to be a nicotine-free vape pen and became addicted. Before deciding to work on quitting this year, he was smoking up to a pack of cigarettes a week.
“I really got addicted to it,” he said Thursday. “I was never a cigarette user before I used e-cigarettes. I thought e-cigs weren’t as dangerous. It’s just a different approach to getting that nicotine fix.”
That fix is one he now regrets.
“I wish I never started nicotine,” Osborne said, admitting to knowing that “smoking, over time, kills people.”
An ongoing nationwide investigation has identified more than 1,600 cases of lung illnesses tied to vaping in 49 states, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those illnesses have led to 34 deaths, including one in Utah.
Utah health officials have confirmed 98 cases of lung disease related to vaping and 13 probable cases.
“Every week there are more cases. It’s not diving off as quickly as we’d like,” said Braden Ainsworth, program manager for the Utah Tobacco Prevention and Control Program at the Utah Department of Health. He said vaping is a growing problem and parents and teachers don’t know that resources exist to keep kids from becoming addicted.
The Utah Legislature aims to further restrict child access to the potentially harmful products with a set of bills resulting from summer-long discussions on the matter. Lawmakers have proposed all-out bans on e-cigarettes, increased taxes on tobacco products, restricting the sale of flavored substances to licensed vape shops, funding education efforts, and more.
“We can all agree that addicting a new generation to nicotine is not something we want to do,” said Brooke Carlisle, government relations director with the Utah chapter of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.
“Youth tobacco use and vaping issues have long been a high priority of mine,” said Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City. She said Utah is at a critical “tipping point” in terms of policies regarding vaping and youth use.
Unlike the some Utah lawmakers, Dailey-Provost said she has no interest in restricting or changing adult access to vape products. She also worries that punitive consequences might have the wrong effects on certain populations.
For Osborne, he says “I just want people to be healthy and live their best life.”
He admittedly smokes a lot less than he has over the past seven years, but still has a strong desire to quit.
“I wish I had never walked into that store to get another e-cigarette because now I have an addiction — just like my dad,” he said.
Thursday’s summit focused on addressing Utah’s tobacco burden, including the alarming increase in youth use rates, as well as examining potential policy solutions ahead of the upcoming Utah legislative session.
Cigarettes saw a 4,000-fold increase in use between 1870, when the average tobacco use was once a year, and 1953, when it had risen to 10 per day, and that signaled an incredible rise in lung cancer rates, something that costs society greatly, Low said.
“I would argue that lung cancer is the ultimate man-made disease ... and it can become a rare disease again if we have the political will to make that so,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
“Nobody deserves lung cancer. Absolutely nobody,” Low said. “Let’s not be complacent about tobacco.”
Correction: An earlier version reported incorrectly that more than 16,000 cases of lung illnesses tied to vaping had been identified nationwide. The CDC has actually reported more than 1,600 cases.