At a recent congressional hearing, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Washington, expressed concern about the illegal Chinese-manufactured flavored, disposable vaping products widely available nationwide. He noted that many of these products are made in unregulated facilities and could be laced with fentanyl — threatening the health and well-being of children.
In response, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf said it is of great concern that the highly lethal drug is now ending up in illegal, foreign-made vapes and that the United States needs an all-of-government approach to protect kids from this threat.
As a parent and grandparent, I couldn’t agree more.
It is not that the government has done nothing, but it needs to do more.
In 2020, the FDA removed flavored, cartridge-based e-cigarettes from store shelves. Unfortunately, it did not include the illegal, flavored, disposable vapes that appeal to minors. As a result, these products continue to be produced and aggressively marketed to children in flavors such as “rainbow cotton candy” to an alarmingly effective degree. In fact, according to the 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey, more than 2.5 million American middle and high school students still vape, with more than eight in 10 using flavored e-cigarettes. Disposable e-cigarette usage among high schoolers has spiked 2,188 percent since 2019.
Policymakers cannot address the youth vaping epidemic without acknowledging the elephant in the room — China.
China is the world’s largest producer of illegal, flavored, disposable vape products. They are made in unregulated facilities, and we have no idea what is actually in them. There could be harmful chemicals and contaminants, sky-high levels of nicotine, or, even worse, fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more potent than morphine. Two milligrams or less is often enough to kill an adult, and smugglers have already brought enough illicitly manufactured fentanyl from China to kill every man, woman and child in America.
The 2020 annual report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted that “China remains the primary source of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances that are trafficked into the United States.”
Moreover, in its 2021 World Drug Report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that “the main source of illicitly manufactured fentanyl is China,” which is also “the primary source of precursors and chemicals used in the manufacturing of fentanyl and its analogues.”
China knows that its flavored disposable vape pens are dangerous and potentially deadly. That’s why, in October 2022, the country imposed strict regulations on the products the vaping industry can produce and sell within the People’s Republic.
However, it did not make these regulations applicable to the products it produces and sells in the United States and elsewhere. Consequently, the United States remains largely clueless about what chemicals and toxins are in these products, along with what nicotine levels they contain.
This needs to end now.
The FDA has started taking steps in the right direction. It recently put several illegal, disposable, foreign-made disposable vapes on the importation red list, giving U.S. Customs and Border Protection the ability to seize these products at the border and all ports of entry into the country. They have also sent warning letters to numerous manufacturers, distributors and retailers, finally making it clear that these products are illegal and need to stop being made and sold.
It’s a good start, but the fight is far from over. The FDA and the Biden administration must press ahead with strong, sustained enforcement action. Commissioner Califf hit the nail on the head when he called for an all-of-government approach. That requires a coordinated effort led by the administration partnering with local and state enforcement agencies working together to stop illegal disposable vapes from coming in and remove them from the shelves before they end up in kids’ backpacks.
Every day that goes by without real, decisive government action is another day that allows a minor to become introduced to these illegal, harmful products that could lead to life-threatening injuries or even death. The FDA must move quickly to finish the job. Parents, teachers and — most important — our kids are counting on it.