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Kennedy calls vaping illnesses ‘a catastrophic regulatory failure’ and questions federal health officials about how we got here

US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III called the vaping-related illnesses that have affected at least 530 people nationwide a “catastrophic regulatory failure” at a hearing Wednesday, urging federal health officials to move quickly to determine what is making people sick.

“How did we get to a point where we’ve got now a widely used series of consumer products that are getting 530 people sick?” Kennedy said at the hearing. “I’m understanding that it [the investigation] is somewhat new here, but there was clearly a massive regulatory failure that allowed for this to happen. Was there not?”

The question sparked an admission from US Food and Drug Administration acting commissioner Ned Sharpless, who said when it comes to the “epidemic” of young people using e-cigarettes, the agency should have taken action earlier.

“In retrospect, the FDA should’ve acted sooner,” Sharpless said. “We should’ve begun regulating these devices sooner.”

Wednesday’s hearing brought together six federal and state health officials, including Sharpless; Anne Schuchat, the deputy principal director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Monica Bharel, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Bharel testified alongside other state officials in the second half of the hearing, hosted by the Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

In her testimony, Bharel said Massachusetts is now investigating 66 cases of suspected vaping-related illness, and that the majority of cases are under the age of 30. Three cases have been confirmed and reported to the CDC, and two are probable.

“The cornerstone of our work has always been prevention,” she said. “Unfortunately, this progress is now at risk.”

During the first panel, the CDC’s Schuchat told Kennedy she was “extremely frustrated with the pace of our investigation.”

Kennedy turned that sentiment around on her.

“So if you’re frustrated with the pace of the investigation,” he asked, “what can speed up the pace of that investigation?”

She responded that the CDC has more than 100 people working on it, but “there may be a very complex set of root causes here.”

When Kennedy pushed her about what those causes could be, Schuchat explained that one source of the problem could be the illicit vape market.

Because the investigation is relatively new, federal health officials are simply trying to gather information as fast as they can, Sharpless told Kennedy earlier in the hearing.

“How did we get to the point where we are backtracking on this, rather than actually putting in place the right consumer protections from the front end, if you’re telling me that Vitamin E shouldn’t be an inhalant and is coating people’s lungs to the extent that children’s lungs look like they’re lungs of an 80-year-old?” Kennedy asked. “Where was the regulatory failure to allow that to happen in the first place?”

Felicia Gans/Boston Globe