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Sen. Dick Durbin says FDA should strengthen regulation of vaping industry — or the head of the FDA should resign

Sen. Dick Durbin is calling on the Food and Drug Administration to swiftly and strictly regulate the vaping industry, comparing it to Big Tobacco preying on youth.

“It looks so innocent, doesn’t it?” Durbin said, holding up a USB-flash-drive-sized e-cigarette. “It is a deadly device.”

Durbin, D-Ill., addressed reporters Monday following his letter late last week to acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, asking him to enforce regulations on the industry he called “Big Vape” in the next several days, or resign.

Congress granted the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products 10 years ago, and e-cigarettes were included in that category in 2016, but the deadline for e-cigarette companies to comply was delayed first until 2021, then moved up to May 2020 after public health agencies sued, Durbin said.

But after hundreds of otherwise healthy, mostly young people streamed into emergency rooms this summer with a respiratory illness that continues to mystify public health officials, Durbin said stricter enforcement needs to happen now, also noting the five deaths related to the illness, confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of those who died was an Illinois resident.

“Our Food and Drug Administration has failed to protect them,” Durbin said of those hospitalized, whose mean age is 22.

Later Monday, the FDA penned a letter to Juul Labs, a popular brand of e-cigarettes, saying the company had marketed its products as alternatives to and safer than smoking when it lacked FDA approval to do so.

The practice of vaping, or using e-cigarette devices, has gained popularity among young people in recent years, according to the CDC. The devices are used to heat up flavored liquid, usually containing nicotine, so users can inhale the vapor. Many also use the devices to inhale THC oil. The CDC and the FDA on Friday said they continue to investigate the illnesses and aren’t sure what products are responsible.

Proper enforcement, Durbin said, would include banning flavored vaping pods, undercover stings to make sure retailers aren’t selling them to minors, sending a letter to all schools in the U.S. about the dangers of vaping, and possible regulations on advertising akin to tobacco enforcement.

He blamed vaping businesses (some owned by tobacco companies) for targeting young people with fruity flavors as traditional cigarette smoking rates in that age group plummeted. Older adults vape far less than young people, he said.

Durbin scoffed at claims by those in the vaping industry who say their products are marketed to adults who want an alternative to smoking. “You mean to tell me flavors like … Smurf cake and unicorn milk are made for 50-year-old chain smokers? The numbers tell a different story.”

Durbin said regulating the industry could help keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of young people (some states, including Illinois, have raised the age to buy the products to 21), and it could also help reduce the number of tampered devices with THC sold on the black market, he said.

FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum released a statement saying the agency remains committed to “getting to the bottom of” products behind the vaping illnesses, and continues to work to ensure the devices aren’t sold to minors. The statement also pointed out the FDA’s investment in an advertising campaign designed to deter youth from vaping, and its commitment to enforce e-cigarette regulations.

“We’ve put the industry on notice: If the disturbing rise in youth e-cigarette use continues, especially through the use of flavors that appeal to kids, we’ll take even more aggressive action. We will do what’s necessary to end the youth e-cigarette epidemic,” the statement said.

In Monday’s letter, the FDA called out Juul representatives for referring to e-cigarettes as “totally safe” and “much safer” than cigarettes. Companies must seek FDA approval to claim products are smoking alternatives. The letter also referenced Juul presentations making these claims to young people, calling them “particularly concerning because these statements were made directly to children in school,” and noted the increasing rates of young people using their products.

Dr. Maria Rahmandar, medical director of the Substance Use & Prevention Program at Lurie Children’s Hospital, joined Durbin at Monday’s press conference at the hospital.

She said she’s noticed more of her teenage patients visit her with respiratory problems, and she has seen them transition from e-cigarettes to traditional tobacco products, given the addictive properties of nicotine. Rahmandar said she wants the industry regulated like tobacco products.

“We do not need to wait decades like we did with traditional cigarettes,” she said.

Kate Thayer/Chicago Tribune