FDA can boost the coronavirus battle by pausing the sale of e-cigarettes
As hospitals across the country are facing an impending shortage of available beds, protective equipment, and ventilators, due to coronavirus, governments are looking for new and untried methods to flatten the curve and mitigate the impact of this disease. While news outlets have reported heavily on a number of vulnerable populations including seniors, another one facing elevated risks from COVID-19 is vapers; i.e. those who use e-cigarettes. To reduce the risk e-cigarettes pose during the pandemic, the federal government should move quickly to pause e-cigarette sales for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.
According to the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, because coronavirus attacks the lungs, smokers and vapers put themselves “at increased risk of COVID-19 and its more serious complications.” Similarly, an NIH-funded study out of Baylor University also found that e-cigarettes disrupt lung function, harm the lungs’ ability to fight viral infections, and increase the chances of a viral infection leading to death. In that study, otherwise healthy mice exposed to e-cigarette aerosol lost the ability to protect themselves from even minor lung infections, dying when exposed to small amounts of flu virus that normally would not affect them.
These studies suggest the existing challenges to our health care system from the coronavirus are multiplied by the effects of smoking and vaping. While we must wait for a vaccine that can fight off the coronavirus, we already have the means to remove the added complications posed by vaping – if only the federal government were willing to act.
Frankly, the Trump administration’s response to last year’s vaping health crisis was underwhelming. It called for banning the sale of flavored vaping cartridges that are particularly attractive to children and teenagers, with the glaring exception of menthol. And its limited flavor ban applied only to vaping cartridges – not to tanks, disposables, and other means of flavoring the content of vapes.
Worse yet, President Trump declared that these minimal actions would be subject to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) ongoing review of e-cigarettes. The president even suggested that the FDA might decide to repeal the flavor ban he’d just implemented. Now that the coronavirus pandemic has struck, the FDA should use its regulatory authority over e-cigarettes to take a completely different tack.
Despite their widespread use – particularly among our nation’s teenagers – e-cigarettes have never been approved by the FDA. According to the Tobacco Control Act, all “new tobacco products on the market without authorization are illegally marketed products.” Thus, the FDA could be enforcing the law against e-cigarettes today; it has simply chosen not to. The coronavirus pandemic has changed that equation. We now have the opportunity – indeed, the obligation – to take immediate action to keep the coronavirus pandemic from getting worse.
That’s why I have called on the FDA to commit to pausing the sale of all e-cigarettes by announcing that it will prioritize enforcement against them during this pandemic. Beyond that, the FDA should commit to not approving the e-cigarette companies’ applications to market their products as long as the coronavirus pandemic persists. While the FDA has so far refused to take these steps, the need for them remains.
As our heroic doctors and nurses risk their lives to defeat this deadly virus, the last thing they need is to have their efforts complicated by the added effects of vaping on its victims. The federal government already has the tools it needs to take e-cigarettes off the market. All it lacks is the will.
Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois, is chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy.