In the weeks since a number of deaths were linked to vaping by health officials, sales at the Gorilla Vapes location in Egg Harbor Township are down 25%-30%, according to franchise co-owner Adam Rubin.

In New Jersey, officials and doctors are keeping tabs on the developing “mystery illness.”

Many vapers are too.

“It’s been brutal,” Rubin said of the drop in sales at the Egg Harbor Township shop he co-owns with his daughter.

Officials have identified about 450 possible cases, including as many as five deaths, in 33 states, including New Jersey. No single vaping device, liquid or ingredient has been tied to all the illnesses, officials said.

Many of the sickened — but not all — were people who said they had been vaping THC, the chemical that gives marijuana its high. Many are teens.

In August, the New Jersey Department of Health issued an advisory saying it was looking into nine such cases in the state, “primarily reported among persons between the ages of 17 to 35 with no significant past medical history.” Coverage of the illness has spurred a national conversation about the risks of the practice, which for years has been touted as a healthy alternative to smoking. That conversation is taking place in South Jersey as well, affecting sales at vape shops and putting health officials on high alert.

As of this weekend, AtlantiCare hasn’t seen any cases “as far as we can tell,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Tornetta.

Dr. Frances Loftus, assistant chair of the department of critical care at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, said it is not a good practice to inhale any chemical or substance into the lungs because it can cause lung damage.

“Smoking cigarettes can lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease and cancer. We can’t fully compare the risks yet because we don’t fully know what distributors are putting into these products. Vapors can contain nicotine carcinogens and other substances,” Loftus said.

“These vape-related illnesses, we are not sure what causes them because the symptoms can be similar to other illnesses.

“We are still learning what causes these illnesses and what symptoms look like. Not all people report that they’ve vaped — especially young people. Most of the people who were affected, according to published reports, were young, otherwise healthy people,” she said.

“We need to talk with the young people in our life – whether they’re patients, children, students, nieces or nephews. They need to know that vaping is not cool. It can be extremely dangerous,” Loftus said.

What is lost in the flurry of media coverage, Rubin said, is that the issue is largely contained to cartridges illegally filled with THC.

Health officials have only been counting certain lung illnesses in which the person had vaped within three months. Doctors say the illnesses resemble an inhalation injury, with the body apparently reacting to a caustic substance that someone breathed in. Symptoms have included shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain and vomiting.

“We’re all wondering if this is new or just newly recognized,” said Dr. Dana Meaney-Delman of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently.

New York state has focused its investigation on an ingredient called Vitamin E acetate, which has been used to thicken marijuana vape juice but is considered dangerous if heated and inhaled. State investigators have found the substance in 13 cartridges collected from eight patients. In several cases, the ingredient made up more than half of the liquid in the cartridge.

Rich Norcross, a sales associate at Gorilla Vapes in Egg Harbor Township and a vaper himself, said when THC cartridges are cut with something like Vitamin E, the filler can re-form in the lungs.

“We’ve been open for about 4 years, and we’ve never had an issue with people coming back with pneumonia or anything like that,” Norcross said. “This epidemic obviously only started a couple months ago, which is when those (THC) cartridges things have become popular.”

An article on 53 illnesses in Illinois and Wisconsin noted that nearly one-fifth of the cases were people who said they vaped nicotine and not anything that contained THC or CBD oil.

Gorilla Vapes has been manufacturing their own e-liquid “exactly the same way” for 5 years, Rubin said.

“There’s never been a problem, there’s never been an issue,” he said.

The shop has resources to inform confused or concerned customers.

Rubin points to the fact that cigarette-related deaths dwarf those resulting from any kind of vaping. The Center for Disease Control puts the number of deaths linked to cigarette smoking at 480,000 a year in the United States.

“I’m not saying that there couldn’t be something in vaping that could hurt people down the road but up to this point they haven’t found anything,” Rubin said.

Staff Writer Vincent Jackson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact: 609-272-7260

Twitter @ACPressColtShaw

Staff Writer

I cover breaking news on the digital desk. I graduated from Temple University in Dec. 2017 and joined the Press in the fall of 2018. Previously, I freelanced, covering Pennsylvania state politics and criminal justice reform.

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