Sen. Mitt Romney suggests recall of e-cigarettes amid reports of associated lung diseases

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) E Liquid for sale at Peak Vapor in Taylorsville, Gov. Herbert has proposed taxing e-cigarettes the same as other tobacco products. Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Washington • Sen. Mitt Romney on Tuesday called for the Food and Drug Administration to consider recalling e-cigarettes as reports emerge of lung diseases tied to their use.

The FDA, Romney tweeted, “should consider recalling e-cigarettes as it continues to investigate recent deaths and illnesses related to vaping."

“I'm increasingly concerned that a generation of young people has been deceived into thinking e-cigarettes are safe,” the Utah Republican continued.

Romney’s suggestion comes as the Utah Department of Health said 35 Utahns are suffering from severe lung diseases associated with vaping, while another 12 potential cases are being investigated.

Nationally, health officials report 450 possible cases of severe lung diseases with five deaths in several states.

The FDA on Monday issued a warning letter to JUUL Labs, which offers a line of vaping devices, over its marketing of “modified risk tobacco products” as well as a letter requesting documents and information about its marketing and outreach practices.

Romney is a co-sponsor of legislation to ban tobacco sales to anyone under age 21, a move that is gathering support in communities across the country. About 18 states have either raised the purchase age limit or are phasing it in, including Utah, which will require those buying tobacco to be at least 21 by 2021.

He also is sponsoring legislation aimed at combatting e-cigarette use with the Smoke-Free Schools Act, which bans e-cigarette use in schools.

Neither Romney nor any of Utah’s members of Congress, though, appear to have signed on to other bills aimed at combatting e-cigarette use.

In fact, two measures — one by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., to limit e-cigarette purchases to those 21 and over and another by Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., to ban television and radio ads for vaping devices — have no other sponsors.

While e-cigarettes have been around for years, health officials raising alarms recently have prompted elected officials nationally and in states to call for action.

Austin Healey, co-owner of Peak Vapor in Taylorsville, agrees it’s important to get to the bottom of the widening reports of health problems. He suspects that some of the illnesses emerging are related to black-market THC canisters but agrees that more investigation is warranted.

But he said it is premature to take action that would punish the entire vaping industry, which he believes is allowing adults addicted to tobacco to do something less harmful to their health.

“My products have saved countless lives,” said Healey, who has been in the business about five years. “Why are we demonizing vaping — something invented to help people?"

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Austin Healy, one of the owners of Peak Vapor in Taylorsville, Dec. 17, 2018.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, called this week for FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless to take decisive action within 10 days to regulate e-cigarettes and any kid-friendly flavors or Durbin said he’d call for Sharpless’ resignation.

“Previously healthy young people are getting seriously ill because the FDA has failed to protect them from the dangers of e-cigarettes. Today, 4 million high-school and middle-school students are using e-cigarettes,” Durbin said in a statement Monday. “The FDA must immediately ban all e-cigarette flavors and devices that have not been approved for sale by the agency. The acting FDA commissioner has the power to do something, it’s time he uses it.”

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, tweeted Tuesday afternoon that “the dangers related to vaping are becoming more and more apparent” and that the FDA should investigate whether the products should be taken off the shelves.

Earlier, in an interview, McAdams said people should be aware of the risks with vaping but that he wasn't sure what actions should be taken.

“I would start with, we need to understand what’s going on,” McAdams said. “You know consumers should be concerned about off-the-shelf products. And I think we need more information to understand what’s going on with the illnesses we’ve seen in the last few months.”

Utah state lawmakers also could see mounting pressure to act.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who has been pushing e-cigarette regulation bills for several years, says he will sponsor legislation again early next year.

He said the best course would be to ban the product outright, but he’s not sure such a measure could pass the Utah Legislature. Alternatives he’s looking at range from banning flavors to requiring a prescription.

“I’ve been banging the drum since 2014," Ray said, “that these things are going to start killing people.”

Ray said he talked to Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, as recently as Monday about taking action against vaping, and while there was no commitment about specific legislation, Adams said he would consider the issue.

Last year, Ray sponsored legislation to significantly raise the tax on e-cigarettes as a way to curb their use. HB252, which would have generated more than $23 million in the second year of implementation, passed the House but died in the Senate.

In addition to legislation, Ray said he intends to discuss with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes the possibility of taking civil action against vaping companies, as attorneys general did years ago against big tobacco.

Healey, the Utah vaping retailer, questions why state legislators want to focus on vaping, with its relatively few reports of health problems, when alcohol claims many lives each year and Salt Lake County’s pollution and inversions threaten the health of thousands.

“Everybody in the valley and even outside the valley is suffering from inversions,” he notes, questioning why lawmakers don’t concentrate on solving that issue as their top priority.

Tribune editor Dan Harrie contributed to his report.