As the number of suspected vaping-related illnesses has grown across the country, Congresswoman Diana DeGette is leading a push to curb teen electronic cigarette use.
"Parents have got to talk to their children about the dangers of vaping," DeGette said at an August 29 press conference at a branch of Children's Hospital Colorado.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently investigating over 200 illnesses that it suspects are tied to vaping. Last week, the Illinois Department of Public Health confirmed the first death linked to vaping. In Colorado, there have been two confirmed cases of vaping-related illness; both involve young adults in metro Denver.
“While we can’t pinpoint the cause of these serious illnesses, we do know that vaping products are poorly regulated and may contain or generate chemicals that are unsafe and potentially cause illness," Tony Cappello of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said during the press conference.
Colorado holds the dubious title of being ground zero for teen vaping: A study by the CDC showed that the state had a 25 percent teen vaping rate, about twice the national average.
But neither DeGette nor Robin Deterding, chief of pediatric pulmonary medicine at Children's Hospital Colorado, were able to explain why vaping is so popular among Colorado's teens. “We don’t know," Deterding replied when asked that question, adding that she considers vaping "one of the most serious health risks for our children today.”
“In my experience talking with parents and teachers, it was marketed to young people as sort of a safe alternative," DeGette added. "People didn’t realize that vaping a) is addictive and b) can cause health problems. I think now, there’s more and more recognition that it really is a very serious issue. It’s a public-health issue."
DeGette said she hopes to help curb teen vaping through legislation.This spring, she introduced two bills designed to do just that. Her Tobacco to 21 Act would raise the national purchasing age to 21 for all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes and the nicotine juices associated with them. In Colorado, the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products is 18.
That bill has bipartisan support in the House. In May, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a partner bill, a sign that the push to raise the tobacco product purchasing age has potential to make it through the full Congress.
DeGette's other bill, the SAFE Kids Act, seeks to ban the sale of all flavored vape juices, unless juice manufacturers can prove to the feds that its products help with smoking cessation, won't harm vapers, and don't increase the likelihood of youth use of nicotine or tobacco products.
"I’m empathetic to someone who is an adult who says, 'I like these flavors,' but I think the health-care risks to teenagers and middle-schoolers and high-schoolers far outweighs any benefit of having cotton candy-flavored vaping products," DeGette said at the press conference.
So far, the SAFE Kids Act has not received support from Republicans, which DeGette said she believes reflects a lack of awareness about the dangers of vaping. "They haven’t shown much interest," she added. "They haven’t stated an objection to it.”
Outside of Congress, there have been other efforts to curb youth vaping.
In November 2018, electronic cigarette giant JUUL announced that it would be removing all flavored juices from convenience stores like 7-Eleven, leaving just tobacco and menthol-flavored liquid for vapers. That move, which doesn't apply to online purchases of JUUL products, came as part of the company's attempt to appease the Food and Drug Administration, which had expressed concern about underage vaping and seemed ready to crack down hard on electronic cigarette companies. Vapers can still buy flavored JUUL liquid and other juices at specialty vape shops.
That same month, then-governor John Hickenlooper issued an executive order directing state agencies to take action to limit the "use of tobacco products, vaping products and e-cigarettes by youth."
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At the Colorado Legislature this spring, Representative Yadira Caraveo and Senator Rhonda Fields introduced a bill that would have heavily taxed vaping products. While the proposal made it through the House, it died in the Senate.
And recently, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced that he's investigating JUUL and the company's possible "deceptive marketing" as it relates to the teen vaping epidemic, according to Colorado Public Radio.
State health officials want Coloradans who vape to contact their doctors and local health departments and immediately if they experience such symptoms as shortness of breath, trouble breathing, chest pain, cough, fatigue and possible fever. Not only could that prevent an illness from becoming worse, but it could also help Colorado battle whatever is causing these illnesses.
“The state health department is working diligently with state, local, and national partners to find the cases and trace the illnesses to their source," Cappello said.