New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday joined state and federal officials calling for a closer look at e-cigarette regulations amid a rash of severe lung illnesses linked to vaping among teens and young adults.
Gov. Phil Murphy ordered a new electronic-cigarette task force to come up with recommendations for ways his administration and the Legislature can protect residents, especially teens, from the dangers of vaping. The task force is expected to make its recommendations by Oct. 3, Murphy said at a news conference Thursday.
State Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said his office was seeking marketing and sales information of the products in New Jersey from 15 vaping companies and would pursue legal action if the investigation found the companies had been illegally marketing e-cigarettes to teenagers.
More than 400 cases of severe lung illness have been reported in 33 states, including three confirmed cases in New Jersey and 19 under investigation. Pennsylvania has reported 17 suspected cases, with nearly 30 more under investigation. Nationally, six people have died.
“As of this moment, there is no safe vape. The only safe alternative to smoking is not smoking," Murphy said.
“If products that come with risks of addiction and other serious health problems are sold at all, they should never be marketed in ways that appeal to children. We share Governor Murphy’s commitment to responding forcefully to protect the health of New Jersey kids," Grewal said in a statement.
A day earlier, President Donald Trump announced plans to ban most flavored e-cigarettes, which have been criticized for appealing largely to teenagers.
New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat, proposed Wednesday a ban on all vaping products. New York has proposed a similar move, while other states and cities are pursuing bans specifically on flavored e-cigarettes, Politico reported.
E-cigarettes are marketed as a smoking cessation aid that is less harmful than combustible cigarettes because the vapor released does not contain the same cancer-causing carcinogens as burning tobacco.
But the aerosols used in e-cigarettes can contain nicotine and other chemicals linked to lung illness, and doctors warn that little is known about the short- and long-term health effects of e-cigarettes.
“Harm is not wholly defined by cancer risk. ... This episode is really opening our eyes to that notion, that [e-cigarettes] can have their own intrinsic risk profile that looks nothing like cigarettes,” Frank T. Leone, director of Penn Medicine’s comprehensive smoking treatment programs, told The Inquirer in August, as the number of cases continued to climb.
In the meantime, e-cigarettes are driving a sharp increase in tobacco use among high school and middle-school students, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.
More than a quarter of high school students have used a tobacco product in the last 30 days, and e-cigarettes are by far the most popular product of choice.
A third of teens said they chose e-cigarettes because of the fruit and candy flavors available, while others said they opted for e-cigarettes because they believed they are less harmful than cigarettes, according to the National Youth Tobacco Study.
A 19-year-old from Broomall who has been hospitalized since late August for a vaping-related lung illness started vaping with candy flavors and later switched to nicotine, his parents told The Inquirer.
The spate of severe lung illnesses among otherwise healthy young adults has elevated concern among experts about the unknown health effects of vaping.
The CDC found that many of the people who were sickened had recently vaped a cannabinoid, and urged people to not alter e-cigarettes or use them with cannabis or other products bought off the street.
But not all cases have been linked to cannabis products, and the CDC has yet to identify a specific product or ingredient responsible for the illnesses.
Some patients have fallen ill quickly with pneumonia-like symptoms, such as coughing and difficulty breathing. Others develop symptoms more slowly.
The proposed federal ban applies only to nicotine e-cigarettes. The FDA is expected to develop a plan to remove flavored e-cigarettes from the market, which would be permitted to be sold again only if they receive approval from the FDA.
The FDA has had the authority to ban flavored e-cigarettes since 2016 but has not done so, instead studying if flavored vaping liquids could help smokers quit, according to the Associated Press.
“The federal government has failed,” said New Jersey Assemblyman Herbert C. Conaway Jr., a Democrat and physician, who spoke during Murphy’s news conference. “We’re not going to fail here to do what we need to do. Right now these products sit in a regulatory dead zone and we need to change that.”