President Donald Trump merits praise for forcefully responding to the outbreak of severe lung illnesses linked to vaping.
On Wednesday, he and his top health officials announced that they are moving rapidly to ban flavored e-cigarettes across the nation. It’s a logical step as vaping skyrockets among teens and candy- or fruit-flavored e-cig cartridges help hook young users on nicotine.
“We can’t allow people to get sick, and we can’t have our youth be so affected,” Trump said as he was flanked by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless. “People are dying from vaping, so we’re looking at it very closely.”
The White House attention is appropriate. More than 450 cases of “lung illness” linked to using e-cigarettes have been reported in 33 states and one U.S. territory, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At least six people have died, including one in Minnesota.
It’s critical that the Trump administration stays focused on this public health threat. Additional action beyond banning flavored e-cig products is necessary. One obvious step: raising the tobacco and e-cig purchase age to 21 nationwide. There is legislation to do so, and Trump should use his bully pulpit to galvanize lawmakers.
Azar and Sharpless should also stay engaged to ensure that tobacco and vaping companies don’t sneak in language to weaken these bills. The Star Tribune Editorial Board also would like to see them lead a national discussion on whether e-cigs should be limited to a medical role and used only as a stop-smoking aid.
It’s important to note that investigators have not linked the lung illnesses to flavored e-cigs. Investigators are homing in on vaping products bought on the street, especially those that contain an active ingredient in marijuana. But health officials haven’t ruled out a link to any vaping product, including those bought in stores. Both the CDC and the American Medical Association are strongly urging caution, recommending that the public avoid using e-cigarettes until the cause of the lung illnesses is identified.
The medical nightmare bravely shared by a Minnesota family this week drives home this important public health message.
In a Star Tribune story, Sedric McClure shared the harrowing details of his 21-year-old son Elijah’s illness. Elijah, an athlete and Augsburg University student, was hospitalized after flu-like symptoms developed on Aug. 22. On Aug. 30, he was moved to intensive care, requiring mechanical assistance to breathe. He remains hospitalized.
While e-cig vapor lacks some of the harmful compounds in traditional cigarette smoke, it can still contain heavy metals, flavorings, “volatile organic compounds” and fine particles, according to the Surgeon General. That’s problematic when e-cig use is dramatically on the rise among young people. There were 1.5 million more youth e-cigarette users in 2018 than 2017.
The FDA’s former commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, admirably sounded the alarm on teen vaping. But Gottlieb has not been replaced. Trump must appoint a permanent successor swiftly and make sure it’s someone with enough backbone to battle the tobacco lobby.
Minnesota legislators also have a role. Lawmakers failed this year to pass a bill that would have raised the tobacco and e-cig purchase age to 21. As illnesses like Elijah’s continue, a hearing is in order to generate support for that measure and to explore other steps to protect the public.