'Deep pockets': Lawmaker on why Congress, Trump administration haven't acted to curb vaping

The Trump administration is moving to ban flavored e-cigarettes, but one lawmaker says both Congress and the administration have not acted quickly enough to combat the risks posed by vaping.

“Quite frankly, we need to have some significant and detailed answers about what the heck is going on, because people are up in arms right now about vaping,” says Illinois Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), whose committee held hearings in July about marketing practices of e-cigarette maker Juul.

The comments from Krishnamoorthi and the action by the Trump administration come amid a surge of vaping-related lung illnesses that were linked to at least six deaths. Krishnamoorthi called the “mystery illnesses” and deaths shocking. Krishnamoorthi confirmed his committee has scheduled additional hearings to take place September 24 to investigate the outbreak, during which CDC principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat, will testify.

‘They have very deep pockets’

“I think that Congress has not acted fast enough. The administration has not acted fast enough, Krishnamoorthi said. “The e-cigarette industry is incredibly powerful. They have very deep pockets. They're spending a lot of money on lobbying, and now they have the power of Big Tobacco behind them...I think that the strength of Big Tobacco and the e-cigarette industry helps explain the slow action in Washington.”

Indeed, in December 2018 tobacco giant Altria (MO) acquired a 35% stake in JUUL for $12.8 billion. Juul is a key player in the e-cigarette business and sells pods with flavors like mint and mango.

Signage for Juul vaping products is seen on a storefront in New York City, U.S., September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

The Trump administration on Wednesday announced a forthcoming Food & Drug Administration (FDA) policy to end sales of non-tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes, and prioritize the agency’s enforcement ability.

Juul said in a statement: "We strongly agree with the need for aggressive category-wide action on flavored products. We will fully comply with the final FDA policy when effective."

The move comes after Kansas state health officials confirmed a sixth U.S. death believed to be related to e-cigarette or vape product use, and after the FDA officially warned e-cigarette giant Juul on Monday that it violated law by marketing its products as safer alternatives to traditional cigarettes without FDA approval. The agency said it was particularly concerned because statements by Juul about lower risk levels were made directly to children in school.

While federal agencies have been working to identify the link between use of the products and illness, so far the cause has alluded health experts. In addition to the reported deaths, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) last week issued a notice confirming 450 reported cases of lung illness possibly connected to e-cigarette use. Five other reported deaths, the agency said, occurred in California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Oregon.

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 06: A man vaping an e-cigarette on September 06, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Ricardo Rubio/Europa Press via Getty Images)

“Initial published reports from the investigation point to clinical similarities among cases,’” the CDC’s September 6 notice states. “Patients report e-cigarette use and similar symptoms and clinical findings.”

Among the cases of e-cigarette-related illness, the CDC said it had not identified any specific substance or product linked to all cases, but it did say “many” patients reported using e-cigarette products “with liquids that contain cannabinoid products, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)” found in marijuana.

Krishnamoorthi said, so far, he had not received any confirmation of links between specific liquified vape products and e-cigarette-related deaths.

‘This is really alarming’

Variations in how e-cigarette or vape products are used makes finding a causal connection difficult. Some experts have pointed to liquid nicotine flavor additives as possible toxic culprits, while the CDC’s notice seems to point to vape liquids containing THC.

A sign advertising vaping products is seen at a shop in Manhattan in New York, U.S., September 10, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar

“This is really alarming,” Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center toxicologist and associate professor of oncology, Maciej Goniewicz, told Yahoo Finance. Goniewicz’s research aims to identify what chemicals, in addition to nicotine, are contained in various vape products, and the effects of the chemicals.

“There are solvents for nicotine, there are flavorings added to the products, and there might be some other chemicals, or toxins, or impurities in the products that may be harmful,” he said. “Some of that flavorings showed quite alarming results in our lab studies, and some of [the flavorings], not all of them, were more toxic than the others.”

While the majority of e-cigarette flavor ingredients are taken from the food industry, it doesn’t make them automatically safe to heat and inhale, Goniewicz explained. “We know that when we eat them, they are quite safe, but there are no real data of what's going on when we inhale those chemicals.”

Goniewicz said he’s also concerned about solvents used to extract nicotine, and possibly THC, which is more difficult to study based on its classification as a federally illegal substance.

“Actually it’s the heating of the nicotine solvent, not the nicotine itself, but propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin — those are the solvents for nicotine — and this is what creates this vapor effect. And these two chemicals if they are overheated, if temperatures go too high, then they decompose. And once they decompose, they create some of the toxic chemicals, and one of those toxic chemicals is formaldehyde.”

On Monday, the CDC issued guidance saying consumers should consider not using e-cigarette products while its investigation is ongoing, and to seek prompt medical care for symptoms resulting from their use.

Alexis Keenan is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow on Twitter @alexiskweed.

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