WASHINGTON – The Trump administration has announced plans to ban flavored electronic cigarettes, the culmination of a nationwide crackdown on vaping following a spike in respiratory illnesses connected to e-cigarette use.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said banning flavored vaping products like menthol and mint was essential in slowing the surge of youth nicotine addiction.
“An entire generation of children risk becoming addicted to nicotine because of the attractiveness, appeal-ability, and availability of these vaping products,” Azar said during a press briefing at the White House Wednesday.
President Donald Trump added: “Vaping has become a very big business, as I understand it, but we can’t allow people to get sick and allow our youth to be so affected.”
A formal plan to implementing the ban is expected in “the coming weeks,” according to the Food and Drug Administration.
With the growing number of cases of severe pulmonary illness connected to electronic cigarette use, state and federal officials have rapidly sounded the alarm.
Concerns about youth vaping led Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to sign an executive order Sept. 4 banning the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in the state.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Aug. 30 an outbreak of a mysterious lung illness tied to vaping, leaving health officials scrambling to find a cause.
Until Sept. 5, the sickness had not been linked to any specific vaping ingredient, product or manufacturer, but many patients, including each of the five in Maryland, reported vaping with illicit THC products.
The FDA said last week it discovered a common chemical, Vitamin E acetate, across cannabis products used by patients who had fallen ill. The agency still is examining samples and has not ruled out potential contaminants in nicotine products.
In addition to six deaths, 450 people in 33 states are reported to have been hospitalized with the disease.
The Maryland Health Department said in a statement the FDA’s findings are “an important clue” in its own investigation but that it “has not been determined yet if vitamin E acetate is the cause, or even one of several causes of the illnesses. Public guidance continues to be to refrain from using e-cigarettes or vaping until more is known about the cause of the illness.”
Health experts stress that more research is needed on e-cigarette products and non-tobacco users should refrain from vaping until there is a better understanding from the scientific community about the risks.
Many vaping products have been found to contain harmful ingredients, though the long-term effects of e-cigarettes, a relatively new product, remain unclear. E-cigarette manufacturers frequently market their devices as a safer alternative to smoking, though the FDA has not yet approved any product as a tool to quit smoking.
“There is so much that is unknown about the content of e-cigarettes and if they are less harmful to users,” said Dawn Berkowitz, director of the Maryland Department of Health’s Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control. “We do know that these products contain nicotine that is never safe for the developing brain, which is not fully matured until about 25 years old.”
Between 2017 and 2018, e-cigarette use among high schoolers increased more than 9 percent, according to a CDC study. Earlier this year Maryland raised the minimum age to purchase electronic smoking devices to 21.
Washington is also quickly ramping up oversight.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, launched an investigation into the four largest vaping manufacturers in late August.
Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Towson, who sits on the panel, said he was “committed to fully investigating the health risks associated with vaping products and to holding e-cigarette manufacturers accountable.”
Vaping products, like tobacco, fall under the FDA’s regulatory scope. The FDA on Monday sent a letter to JUUL, warning the company about marketing claims that its products are an effective method for smoking cessation.
JUUL, maker of the country’s most popular vaping device, is expected to earn $3.4 billion in revenue this year, according to Bloomberg.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s subcommittee on economic and consumer policy, opened an investigation into JUUL in July. He said in a statement he is pleased with the administration’s actions to ban flavored products, but that oversight shouldn’t end there.
“I’m committed to continuing our investigation to ensure e-cigarette companies like JUUL are held accountable for profiting off the backs of American children through fraudulent advertising and marketing practices,” he said.