Federal officials on Thursday announced they are directing criminal investigators to investigate the largely unregulated electronic cigarette industry, beefing up efforts to confront a public health crisis amid a growing number of illnesses and deaths linked to vaping.
“The focus of their work is to identify what is making people sick, as well as a focus on the supply chain,” said Mitch Zeller, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products.
The agency’s office of criminal investigations launched its nationwide probe earlier this summer.
Federal officials also disclosed Thursday that 530 people are suffering from lung ailments related to e-cigarettes, up from the 380 cases reported last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The cases have been reported in 38 states and one territory. Seven deaths were on record from vaping incidents involving nicotine products and THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.
The investigation, which is targeting the broader marketplace rather than individuals, coincided with a regulatory crackdown in the U.S. and elsewhere, including China and India, on the hand-held battery-powered vaporizers that simulate smoking.
President Trump last week announced a temporary federal ban on flavored vaping products, as did New York state. Members of the D.C. Council proposed a similar ban this week.
The vaping industry, which has grown to an estimated $20 billion globally from roughly $7 billion five years ago, has increasingly relied on sales of flavored nicotine formulas, including vanilla, bubble gum, and mint. Industry observers have said more than 15,000 flavors are now on the e-cigarette market.
Vaping among youths also has spiked in recent years. Analysts largely blame the popularity of Juul, a San Francisco-based company that sells flavored e-cigarette products that look like USB flash drives. Founded in 2015, the company commands more than 70% of the U.S. e-cigarette market, according to multiple estimates.
High school students reporting vaping in the previous 30 days increased this year to 27.5%, compared with 20.8% in 2018 and 11.75% in 2017, according to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey. Overall, more than 5 million middle and high school students use e-cigarettes, the survey revealed, and 97% of those who smoke use flavored products.
The FDA has called youth vaping an epidemic, but public health specialists are increasingly lashing out at the agency for what they say was its failure to police the vaping industry in its infancy.
“Washington faced a flood of vaping products [in recent years] and had no plan to figure out how it was going to get everything under control,” Erika Sward of the American Lung Association told The Washington Times.
“The FDA took far too long to start regulating e-cigarettes,” said Vince Willmore of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Ms. Sward said the American Lung Association welcomes the “courageous move” by the Trump administration to confront a crisis she blamed on federal inaction.
The first electronic cigarette devices date back to the early 1960s, but Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik is credited with inventing modern e-cigarettes in 2003. More than 80% of the devices used in the United States are imported from China.
E-cigarettes initially were sold to help cigarette smokers kick their habit. The tobacco industry was heavily regulated in the 1990s and early 2000s after a series of class-action lawsuits about the addictive nature of tobacco, but the FDA took a largely hands-off approach to e-cigarettes, health professionals say.
The FDA insists it did what it could to keep up with what was a massive shift in tobacco consumption habits, including creating the Center for Tobacco Products in 2009. That same year, an effort to create further oversight was slowed down by a court case the agency lost to Sottera Inc., an importer and distributor of vaping devices.
In August 2016, the agency gave the Center for Tobacco Products’ regulatory authority to consider all vaping products as tobacco products, but no action was taken against flavored products.
Agency officials were studying whether flavors could help smokers quit traditional cigarettes.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.