Durbin tells FDA chief to 'stop this vaping epidemic' or resign

Durbin tells FDA chief to 'stop this vaping epidemic' or resign
© Getty Images

A top Democrat on Friday called on the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to resign unless the agency chief takes immediate steps to regulate e-cigarettes and stop the youth vaping epidemic.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Walmart to stop selling e-cigarettes | Senators press FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately | House panel tees up e-cig hearing for next week Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers say Zuckerberg to 'cooperate' on antitrust probes | Dems see victory after McConnell backs election security funds | Twitter takes down fake pro-Saudi accounts Bipartisan group of senators urges FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, sent the warning to acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, telling him to take “decisive” action in the next 10 days to properly regulate e-cigarettes or step down as head of the agency.

“As Acting Commissioner of the FDA, you alone have the power to stop this vaping epidemic, which has now reached the point where children and young adults are getting sick and dying,” Durbin wrote. “It is my strong belief that, if you do not take decisive action within the next ten days, you should resign your post.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Durbin’s letter comes as federal and state health officials say they are investigating 450 cases of a mysterious lung illness linked to people using vaping products. As of Friday, there have been four deaths related to the disease in Oregon, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota.

An FDA spokesman told The Hill that the agency has been keeping Congress apprised of the status of the investigation.

"Getting to the bottom of this is a top priority for the agency and all of our federal and state partners. We are leaving no stone unturned in following any potential leads and we’re committed to taking appropriate actions as the facts emerge," the spokesman said.

As for tackling the youth vaping epidemic, the spokesman said it remains a top agency priority.  

"We’ve put the industry on notice: If the disturbing rise in youth e-cigarette use continues, especially through the use of flavors that appeal to kids, we’ll take even more aggressive action."

Durbin is an outspoken critic of vaping, and has been leaning on Sharpless and the FDA to take action. 

In his latest letter, Durbin called for the agency to immediately ban all e-cigarette flavors other than tobacco, as well as to immediately ban all e-cigarette devices that have not been approved for sale by the FDA, and ensure their immediate removal from stores nationwide.

He also called for Sharpless and the head of the agency’s tobacco division to brief senators next week on the steps the FDA is taking to address and reduce vaping-related illnesses and deaths.

Youth vaping has skyrocketed in the past year, driven largely by teenagers becoming drawn to sweet and fruit-flavored e-cigarette pods easily accessible in stores. The FDA has struggled to keep up with regulation.

Most e-cigarette brands sold in the U.S. are legal, but none of them have been subject to FDA review, leaving a regulatory gray area as more and more products flood the market.

The agency gained the authority to regulate tobacco products in 2009, but it wasn’t extended to vaping products until 2016. When the Trump administration took over in 2017, the FDA decided to delay enforcing the laws until 2022, much to the frustration of public health groups.

Make no mistake, we saw this storm coming,” Durbin wrote Friday. “I have expressed these concerns to you on multiple occasions …  [a]nd yet, FDA has refused to act in any type of meaningful way. If FDA had exercised its authority—granted to you by congress ten years ago—we would not be in this situation today.”

Still, officials say it’s unclear what is causing the illnesses, but many cases appear to involve vape products containing THC, a compound found in marijuana. Some patients also reported using nicotine vapes. 

The nicotine vaping industry has strongly backed the assertion that black market THC products are to blame. According to Durbin though, there’s no distinguishing nicotine vapes and tobacco vapes.

If the FDA had acted initially, Durbin argued, “many of these e-cigarette devices and flavors would not be on the market, countless numbers of children would not now be addicted to nicotine, regulations would be in place to help prevent against the adulteration of e-cigarette devices, and we would have far better information about the short- and long-term health consequences of vaping.”

Updated: 8:27 p.m.