WASHINGTON — Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette called for fast action to investigate e-cigarettes during a congressional hearing Wednesday on how to end health hazards linked to vaping.
“The vaping epidemic and its impact are personal to me,” DeGette, a Denver Democrat, said during the hearing. “My home state of Colorado has the unfortunate distinction of leading the country in the rate of teen vaping.”
DeGette chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which held the hearing.
It was prompted by recent reports by U.S. health officials that an unidentified lung disease linked to vaping has sickened at least 530 people and killed at least 11.
DeGette said the problem is worsening, justifying a need for government intervention.
“From 2011 to 2015, there was a 900% increase in youth vaping, and from 2017 to today, the rate of high school use doubled,” she said.
E-cigarettes, or electronic cigarettes, are handheld battery-powered vaporizers that simulate smoking but without burning harmful tobacco. Instead, users inhale an aerosol, which is known as vaping.
Manufacturers who sell them under the names of Juul and NJOY try to make them more attractive to consumers by adding flavors to the vapors.
DeGette said the manufacturers are making e-cigarettes more deadly with the flavoring. Health officials suspect oils that add flavor to the aerosol are the culprits in the pneumonia-like illnesses.
“Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that 60% of students using e-cigarettes within the past month cited using popular fruit, menthol or mint flavors,” she said.
DeGette introduced legislation earlier this year to ban the sale of kid-friendly flavored nicotine products often used in e-cigarettes. It has bipartisan support, including from the Trump administration.
She introduced a separate bill this year that would raise the nationwide smoking age from 18 years old to 21 years old for both traditional and e-cigarettes.
DeGette put part of the blame on the Food and Drug Administration, which did not fully investigate potential hazards of e-cigarettes before they were sold to consumers.
“In some cases, we don’t even know what chemicals and toxins are being inhaled when vaping,” DeGette said.
The subcommittee she chairs oversees the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control, both of which are investigating vaping illnesses.
“FDA needs to do its job, examine these products and tell the public what the risks are, and how — or if — they can be legally sold,” DeGette said.
Her sentiments were echoed by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who said it was “long past time” for the FDA to take action against e-cigarettes.
The manufacturers originally marketed e-cigarettes as a safer alternative than traditional cigarettes because users do not inhale smoke, only vapors. They also said e-cigarettes could help smokers break their habit by switching them to vaping.
The manufacturers’ claims were denied Wednesday by Ned Sharpless, the FDA acting commissioner, during the congressional hearing.
“E-cigarette products are not safe,” Sharpless said.
This month the FDA warned Juul, the nation’s largest e-cigarette manufacturer, that it no longer could market its products as safer than cigarettes. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission is investigating Juul’s marketing tactics.
Sharpless said the FDA plans to complete new policies for safety enforcement against manufacturers, which could include ordering them to stop selling e-cigarettes.
He said it was unlikely to be a ban of all e-cigarettes. Instead, the enforcement was likely to focus on flavors such as mint and menthol that are prime suspects in the respiratory illnesses.