Speeches & Floor Statements

Opening Statement: Vaping Hearing

Posted on November 13, 2019

I often suggest that Americans look at Washington, D.C., as if it were a split screen television. Today is a good example of that.

On one side, you have the House of Representatives beginning public impeachment hearings into the president.

But on the other side you have the Senate health committee holding a bipartisan hearing investigating a mysterious illness tied to e-cigarette use that has harmed over 2,000 Americans, with 39 who have died, at a time when as many as one in ten Tennessee high school students are using e-cigarettes, most of them illegally.

If you walk into a convenience store to buy aspirin, you assume the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that it is safe and effective.

You then pick up a package of peanut butter crackers – you’d assume FDA ensured it was packaged in a clean space. 

Then, as you go to check out, you grab an apple from a basket on the counter. You’d assume FDA had established rules for how it was grown.

And so, when you go to buy one of these, you would also assume that someone said it was ok to sell to this to you.

But you would be wrong – this is an e-cigarette and the FDA has not used its authority to say whether they are ok to be sold.

Not a single e-cigarette or vaping product has been reviewed and cleared for sale by the FDA.

According to data from FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over the last two years, 13.5 million Americans, including over 5 million teenagers, have used e-cigarettes, with about 1.6 million teenagers using e-cigarettes frequently.

In Tennessee, about one in twenty adults use e-cigarettes some days or every day, and about one in ten high school students used an e-cigarette in the last 30 days.

And over the last six months, there have been 2,051 Americans hurt and 39 have died – including two in Tennessee – from vaping-related lung illnesses, many from vaping with THC, the derivative of marijuana that makes people high.

Here is what I want to learn today:

First, what have FDA and the CDC learned about the more than 2,000 Americans who have gotten hurt from vaping?

Second, three years after FDA said it had the authority to regulate e-cigarettes, why aren’t there any rules in effect about what standards e-cigarettes and vaping products need to meet?

Third, what should FDA be doing to regulate and review these products?

Fourth, there has been a 700 percent increase in the number of teenagers vaping since 2013 – what has FDA and CDC done about this surge of teenagers vaping?

And fifth, how much of the $5.5 billion that the Center for Tobacco Products at FDA has received in user fees from the tobacco industry over the last decade has been spent on e-cigarettes and vaping?

These so-called “e-cigarettes,” which turn a liquid containing nicotine into a vapor, can look like a pen, a USB flash drive that you plug into your computer, or a regular cigarette.

Sometimes the liquid has a flavor – mint or fruit for example – that can be particularly appealing to younger people.

To make this one work, for example, there is a cartridge with liquid containing nicotine derived from tobacco, and it begins to operate automatically when you inhale.

In March of this year, doctors began to see patients with shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms, with no obvious cause.

The common thread was that all the patients had used e-cigarettes.

On August 1, CDC – in coordination with FDA – began an investigation into the outbreak of vaping-related illnesses.

While a large number of the cases involve THC, the derivative of marijuana that makes people high, Americans using e-cigarettes are inhaling something that is damaging their lungs and we need to find out what that is.

Last Friday, CDC announced the discovery of an additional “very strong culprit,” a form of vitamin E called Vitamin E acetate.

According to CDC, inhaling Vitamin E acetate could harm your lungs – I look forward to hearing more about what CDC and FDA have found.

In the middle of this outbreak of vaping-related illnesses and a 700 percent increase in the number of teenagers using e-cigarettes since 2013, I am concerned that the Center for Tobacco Products has received almost $5.5 billion in user fees and that there are no rules in effect to regulate e-cigarettes.

This means that more than 8 million adults have used e-cigarettes, many instead of smoking, that FDA has not said are okay to be sold.

FDA has not always regulated tobacco products.

In 2009, Congress passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, giving the Center for Tobacco Products at FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products.

I voted against this bill because it did “the right thing in the wrong way.”

I was concerned that FDA was already overwhelmed with ensuring the safety of our medicines and food supply, and did not need the added burden of regulating tobacco.

Nevertheless, in 2009, Congress and the President gave the FDA the job of regulating tobacco products.

By 2011, e-cigarettes were becoming widely used products – and the National Youth Tobacco Survey reported that teenagers were beginning to use e-cigarettes as well. 

But it wasn’t until 2016 – 5 years later – that FDA announced it would begin regulating e-cigarettes as tobacco products.

As a result, it has been illegal under federal law to sell e-cigarettes to anyone under 18 since 2016.

And so, despite the fact that FDA has been in charge of tobacco since 2009, and has been tracking youth use of e-cigarettes since 2011, and declared it would begin to regulate e-cigarettes in 2016, there are no rules in effect for manufacturers of vaping products.  

It was just earlier this year that FDA took the first step – the agency proposed a rule in April and a second in September – to give manufacturers direction on what information FDA would need to review and authorize e-cigarettes.

FDA needs to make these rules final so manufacturers have clear standards and so consumers know that the e-cigarettes they are buying have met certain qualifications.

The only reason e-cigarettes are allowed to be sold at the convenience store is because FDA has decided to allow them to be sold while the Agency sets those standards.

In addition, because it is already illegal to sell e-cigarettes to those under 18, FDA has the authority to prevent online shops and stores from selling to teenagers.

But parents, teachers, and principals are overwhelmed by the number of teenagers vaping –more than five million teenagers reported using an e-cigarette in the last 30 days, according to a recent National Youth Tobacco Survey.   

In just one year, 2013 to 2014, youth use of e-cigarettes tripled, rising from 600,000 teenagers to 2 million.

Since 2014, the number of high school students using these products has more than doubled.

I know this Administration has been concerned about the number teenagers using e-cigarettes and is working on a proposal to address flavored e-cigarettes.

A step Congress could take would be to pass Senators McConnell and Kaine’s provision in our Lower Health Care Costs Act, which raises the minimum age for purchasing any tobacco product – including e-cigarettes – from 18 to 21.

Here is the reality: 13.5 million Americans, including more than 5 million teenagers have reported using e-cigarettes, with 1.6 million teenagers vaping regularly, and these products have not met any FDA rules or standards.

And over the last six months, over 2000 Americans have gotten sick, and 39 have died, from lung illness related to vaping.

This is an unacceptable situation that demands our attention and I look forward to hearing from you today.