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Public health officials say the number of people who have died or gotten sick after using e-cigarettes or other vaping products is rising. And they're still trying to figure out why. It has led to plenty of warnings about e-cigarettes and put a spotlight on illegal vaping operations. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: I'm in Bristol, Wis., not far from the Illinois-Wisconsin border. And this is where law enforcement officials conducted a raid at one of the condos here in a winding subdivision of new homes and houses still under construction.
DAVID BETH: And they were able to uncover 31,000 loaded or filled cartridges with THC oil.
CORLEY: That's Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth. He's lined up some of the items from the drug bust on a table. In a state where marijuana is still illegal, he says they found mason jars full of THC oil, plus thousands more empty cartridges and small, colorful boxes that look like they were made for candy.
What do we have here?
BETH: We have Linwood Lemonade Clear.
CORLEY: All right, with a nice little lemon...
BETH: With a little lemon drop on it. Yeah.
CORLEY: Police arrested 20-year-old Tyler Huffhines and his 23-year-old brother Jacob Huffhines last month, charging them with running what police say is one of the country's largest illegal manufacturing vaping businesses. Their mother, 43-year-old Courtney Huffhines, was also arrested and is scheduled to appear in court later this week.
BETH: We had no clue that this was really an industry. We had no clue that this was happening here in Kenosha County. It caught us off guard big time.
CORLEY: That's the illegal end of it, but legal e-cigarette use has been on the rise all across the country. People inhale the aerosol created when the e-cigarette devices heat up liquid infused with nicotine or other substances. In some states, it's also legal to vape using cartridges filled with THC, the get-high ingredient of marijuana. Authorities suspect the culprit behind the rash of illnesses could be caused by illegal, street-level THC vaping products, like contaminated cannabis oil. Dr. Anne Schuchat with the Centers for Disease Control says there are now more than 1,000 vaping-related lung-injury cases.
ANNE SCHUCHAT: This condition is serious. And we continue to learn of additional deaths. There have been 18 deaths confirmed and reported to CDC from 15 states, and we know that additional deaths are under investigation.
CORLEY: There haven't been any deaths in Wisconsin, but there have been 69 cases of vaping-related lung conditions. John Meiman, the chief medical officer at the state health department, says young adults and teenagers make up most of the state's cases.
JOHN MEIMAN: The main takeaway is that, you know, a large number of patients here in Wisconsin report using THC vaping products, particularly pre-filled cartridges.
CORLEY: And now the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration are doubling down on warnings on even using legal e-cigarette products. That frustrates advocates of nicotine-based vaping, who argue the products are safer for smokers than regular cigarettes. But the CDC suggests smokers use other methods to try to curb their habit. The FDA also says people affected with lung illnesses have reported using both THC and nicotine-based products.
At Bono gas station and vape shop in Kenosha, display cases in the front of the store are packed full of vaping supplies. Twenty-five-year-old Hamza Abujad (ph) is a manager here. He says he's been keeping an eye on all the news because it could affect his bottom line.
HAMZA ABUJAD: And I own a, you know, distribution business, too, for vaping. It's - yeah, I mean, you have to keep up with it because anything could happen. And they can ban it, you know?
CORLEY: He says, so far, neither the controversy over vaping or the news about the Wisconsin arrest has affected business.
ABUJAD: Not really. People that don't vape, you know, now they just hate it more. But people that are actually vaping, they actually research it even more. They go deeper into it.
CORLEY: Federal and state health agencies are continuing the effort to solve the mystery behind the vaping-related illnesses. The CDC says so far, there is no sign the outbreak has reached its peak. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Kenosha, Wis.
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