Mystery vaping deaths in House spotlight

Mystery vaping deaths in House spotlight
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The turmoil surrounding the e-cigarette industry was in the spotlight Tuesday when the House Oversight and Reform Committee held a hearing on the vaping illnesses that have sickened hundreds of people, including nine who have died.

E-cigarette companies are facing widespread furor over the illnesses and rising youth vaping rates, sparking action from the Trump administration, Congress, governors and other businesses, sending the industry into a state of chaos.

“As we focus on the tragic outcomes of this lung disease outbreak, we must view is as another chance to come together to protect the public health,” said Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiOvernight Health Care: WHO declines to declare Chinese virus a global emergency | Insurers to help launch nonprofit to lower drug prices | Anti-abortion group targets battleground Dems Here's how to fight the skyrocketing use of e-cigarettes by young people Trump suggests LBJ is in hell: 'He's probably looking down — or looking up' MORE (D-Ill.), chairman of the panel’s Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee.

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The first illnesses were reported publicly early this summer, and the federal government is now investigating 530 cases of vaping-related lung illnesses in 38 states. About half of those who have become sick are under the age of 25.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), testified Tuesday that she expects hundreds more cases to be reported, and more deaths.

The CDC says most patients have reported vaping cartridges containing THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, which are widely available on the black market, and is warning people not to buy illegally sold products.

Still, the e-cigarette industry has been unable to evade scrutiny through the outbreak.

Schuchat said the CDC is not ruling out that nicotine vaping products that are sold legally are involved in the illnesses. Other additives and chemicals found in those cartridges may also be the culprit.

The CDC is also recommending people avoid using e-cigarettes if they’re concerned about becoming sick.

The e-cigarette industry had already been facing backlash from the federal government and members of Congress for rising youth-vaping rates. A quarter of high school seniors say they have vaped in the past month, according to preliminary federal data.

Health groups have long pushed for the administration to ban flavored e-cigarette products, which they say are appealing to kids.

But the illnesses were a catalyst for action, with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump denies telling Bolton Ukraine aid was tied to investigations Former senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Title, release date revealed for Bolton memoir MORE saying last month that “people are dying” and flavored products need to be banned to curb youth vaping rates.

The industry argues that banning the sale of flavored e-cigarette products will hurt adults who are trying to quit smoking tobacco. Flavored products make up 85 percent of Juul's domestic sales, meaning such a ban would be a blow to the company's bottom line.

E-cigarette companies have also tried distancing themselves from the illnesses, blaming black market products that are unregulated and contain mysterious ingredients.

“There is clear and compelling evidence that demonstrates that the illnesses are caused by unregulated, black market THC and CBD products—not regulated nicotine vapor products,” said Tony Abboud, executive director of the Vapor Technology Association, a group which represents many e-cigarette companies but not major industry player Juul.

“Generalizing the cause of the outbreak to all vapor products is misleading and deeply problematic for two reasons: it doesn’t give people enough accurate information to protect themselves from what is causing these illnesses and it could confuse adults using FDA-regulated, industry-standard nicotine-containing vapor products into reverting to combustible cigarettes.”

Krishnamoorthi on Tuesday appeared to push back on vaping groups that tie the illnesses to only THC black market products, saying: “Many people out there would like this to be a THC-only problem.”

The CDC has reported that some patients reported vaping nicotine only.

While the hearing was called to focus on the outbreak, Democrats linked the illnesses to the rising popularity of e-cigarettes among teenagers and the perceived dangers of vaping in general.

“No matter what you call it, Juuling, vaping, smoking, it’s all the same, and a new generation of young people are becoming addicted to nicotine through these kid friendly flavors,” said Rep. Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyBiden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements The Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power Pressley says she 'would welcome the opportunity' to educate DeVos after abortion, slavery comparison MORE (D-Mass.).

“We have no idea, truly, the long-term impacts this will have. As a mother and a lawmaker, I find this frightening.”

It has been a year of unprecedented challenges for the e-cigarette industry.

Juul, which corners the vaping market in the U.S., was recently accused by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of illegally marketing its products as less harmful than cigarettes. 

Krishnamoorthi appeared to link the popularization of vaping e-cigarettes to the illnesses.

“This is a problem exacerbated by e-cigarette companies that make what appear to be unfounded and illegal claims that their products are safer and healthier than cigarettes,” said Krishnamoorthi, one of the industry’s most fervent critics in Congress.

“People trust and rely on those claims, even when there is no evidence to back them up.”

The industry faces a critical stretch ahead.

Some members of Congress have called on the FDA to remove all e-cigarettes from the market until they can be proven safe.

“In light of the recent spate of illnesses and deaths associated with vaping devices, we believe additional action is urgently needed to protect Americans nationwide. Specifically, we urge the FDA to immediately remove all pod- and cartridge-based e-cigarettes from the market, unless or until they can prove that they benefit the public health,” Sens. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats see Mulvaney as smoking gun witness at Trump trial Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment MORE (D-Ill.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiDemocrats step up pressure over witnesses after Bolton bombshell Impeachment manager dismisses concerns Schiff alienated key Republican votes: 'This isn't about any one person' Kaine: GOP senators should 'at least' treat Trump trial with seriousness of traffic court MORE (R-Alaska), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleySenate Dems to Pompeo: Comments about NPR reporter 'insulting and contemptuous' Environmentalists, Oregon senators oppose DOT increasing transport of natural gas by rail Senate Democrat says he is concerned intelligence community is 'bending' Soleimani presentations MORE (D-Ore.) wrote in a letter last week to acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless.

The FDA is expected to issue rules in several weeks banning the sale of flavored e-cigarette products. Governors in New York and Michigan banned sales of most flavored vapes last week.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) went further, announcing a temporary ban on the sale of all vaping products, including tobacco-flavored cartridges, that other states and the Trump administration plan to leave on the market.

Meanwhile, Walmart announced Friday it would no longer sell e-cigarette products, citing the “uncertainty” surrounding their future in the U.S. And TV networks CNN, CBS and Viacom said they will end advertisements by e-cigarette companies, including Juul.

Updated at 5:28 p.m.