U.S. Senate demands answers on vaping illness epidemic as Trump and feds promise action

Nearly a quarter of the U.S. Senate blasted federal health authorities Wednesday for what they said was a consistent failure to regulate e-cigarettes, urging aggressive steps to stem the ongoing crisis of severe lung illnesses connected to vaping.

Led in part by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, 23 senators said in a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that the agency has allowed thousands of potent e-cigarettes to flood the market, none of them tested for possible risks to public health.

The lack of federal enforcement, they wrote, “created an environment where dangerous products have flourished and put children’s health at risk.”

The unforgiving letter came amid increasing federal steps to take charge of a rash of illnesses connected to vaping that has so far killed six people nationwide, including one in Oregon.

At least 450 people have fallen ill in 33 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the cases involved marijuana oils, federal authorities say, but the outbreak has also prompted a reckoning over the proliferation of vape products containing nicotine.

Authorities say they don’t know what specific substance or substances are causing the illnesses; no single common chemical has been found across samples tested by investigators.

The dominance of reported marijuana vaping among the victims has raised the possibility that illicit products tainted with dangerous chemicals are the source.

But some cases don’t appear to fall into the category of illegal marijuana. The Oregon case, for example, involved legally purchased cannabis products. And some patients only reported vaping nicotine.

The U.S. senators’ letter did not address marijuana vaping products.

The Oregon resident who died regularly used electronic cigarettes, or vape pens, to inhale vaporized oil containing THC, the key chemical in marijuana that gives people a high. The victim succumbed to medical complications in July after the person’s lungs stopped functioning, according to two pulmonologists who had tried to save the patient’s life.

The U.S. senators’ sternest words focused on the government’s failure to make sure the vape products people buy are actually safe.

The FDA “must use this power going forward to play a leadership role in ending this epidemic,” they wrote.

E-cigarettes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes but work on the same principle: A heating element turns a liquid into a vapor which, when inhaled, delivers nicotine or THC to the person using it. In addition to the nicotine or THC, the liquids carry flavorings and chemicals that help create the vapor.

The senators called for the agency to immediately find out which e-cigarette products could be dangerous, tell the public what it already knows about the risks that come with using e-cigarettes and take out of circulation products currently known to pose a risk as well as flavored vaping liquids that aren’t shown to be in some way beneficial for users’ health.

In addition to urging the agency to act, the senators gave health officials a Sept. 20 deadline to answer questions about what they know and what they are doing about the epidemic.

The federal agency has taken center stage in the investigation of the vaping illnesses, asking states to provide extensive medical information about victims and send in samples of the products they used.

The agency’s online homepage warns people against using vaping products with THC, particularly any bought “on the street.” Young people, the agency says, should not vape any substance whatsoever.

The FDA on Monday sent stern letters of its own, addressed to Juul, a company that produces what has become the most popular e-cigarette brand in the United States. The agency accused Juul of illegally pitching its nicotine products as a safer alternative to smoking and ordered the company to stop.

The U.S. senators’ letter came on the same day President Donald Trump announced a proposal to ban thousands of flavors used in e-cigarettes.

“We will not stand idly by as these products become an on-ramp to combustible cigarettes or nicotine addiction for a generation of youth,” said Secretary Alex Azar of the U.S. Health and Human Services.

As of last week, the Oregon Health Authority was trying to obtain a sample of the product used by the person who died at a Portland hospital after vaping THC. The agency identified two marijuana retail stores where the person shopped but has declined to release any details that would allow the public to identify either the stores or the products the victim bought.

The state’s investigation into the illness expanded Tuesday to a second victim, who officials said survived. They didn’t indicate if the person had vaped a marijuana or nicotine product.