Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Despite what your roommate may tell you, vaping has become a national epidemic. In the past decade, e-cigarettes have experienced a meteoric rise in popularity among teenagers and young adults. From 2017 to 2018 alone, the percentage of high school seniors who had vaped within the last month jumped from 11 to 21 percent.
Not only is vaping significantly more common now, but there’s also been a recent surge in vaping-related illnesses. As of September 6, there have been 450 cases of illnesses and five deaths with links to vaping. The underlying cause has yet to be identified, but vitamin E acetate has been cited as a common factor among the cases reported.
The Food and Drug Administration is to blame. Despite unprecedented e-cigarette use, the FDA has largely neglected the issue; in 2017, the agency decided to delay its comprehensive review of e-cigarettes on the market from 2018 to 2022. Its inaction caused backlash from several major health groups — such as the American Lung Association — that eventually sued and forced the FDA to push forward their review to May 2020.
Even the FDA’s current measures are ineffectual. Following the Tobacco Control Act, the FDA required all “new” products — those not on the market before Feb. 15, 2007 — to be authorized before they could be sold. While this should’ve cleansed the market of potentially-dangerous products, teenagers can easily acquire e-cigarettes and liquids from unlicensed sellers that can tamper with the ingredients or mix products.
Caleb Herdman, a 16-year-old from Pennsylvania, purchased his vape pen online from a third-party distributor that had heavily laced its product with flavor-enhancing pesticides. According to his mother, all he had to do was “go online, place an order and have it shipped to his grandparents’ house. It was that simple.”
Herdman was put on life support; luckily, he survived, but he suffered permanent lung damage.
As for preventing further tragedies like his, the FDA has only taken bureaucratic steps with little success. The FDA said on its website that it has sent letters to 64 companies inquiring about over 90 products. In addition, it has issued letters to two companies notifying them that they must cease the sales of 27 products.
However, there have been no public product recalls since the first case of potentially vaping-related illness in June. Whether this is due to negligence or extraneous administrative hurdles, the situation has become dire enough that the FDA needs to address the underlying impediment to enact swift change.
At a bare minimum, it would be logical for the FDA to recall — at least temporarily — the products involved in the cases of vaping-related illnesses. Since scientists have yet to definitively identify the responsible ingredient(s), the FDA also needs to take preventative action to minimize future harm.
Regardless of how the FDA chooses to tackle increased e-cigarette use among minors and young adults, its regulation only has one clear solution: impose more rigorous premarket and market reviews and immediately recall products that don’t comply. While “warning letters” may be the proper bureaucratic approach, e-cigarette usage has become a national crisis. The FDA must utilize strong-arm tactics if it hopes to ensure the welfare of our nation’s young people.