Sept. 19 (UPI) -- Officials at the Food and Drug Administration told reporters on Thursday that the agency launched a criminal investigation of suspected vaping-linked lung illnesses.
The investigation was started weeks ago, officials said, with the first reports that vague lung illnesses could be linked to e-cigarettes and vapor devices, officials said in a conference call with reporters.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday also reported 530 confirmed or probable lung illnesses in 36 states -- up from 380 on Sept. 12.
On Tuesday, a California man became the 7th person in the U.S. to die from the lung conditions.
"We are in desperate need of facts and answers to questions. The trained investigators in our of criminal investigations typically get involved in cases like this," Mitch Zeller, who runs the Center for Tobacco Products at the FDA, told reporters on the call. "They have been involved from the beginning because they have unique skills that will help us all get answers to the questions we're desperately seeking."
Early testing has linked the illnesses to illicit marijuana vapor cartridges, but officials say they cannot rule out nicotine e-cigarettes as also playing.
About 16 percent of the people who fell ill were younger than age 18. Most patients have a history of using e-cigarette products with THC -- the substance that gets people high in marijuana -- nicotine or some mix of the two substances.
The FDA has collected more than 150 vaping product samples for testing, with the agency looking for nicotine, THC, opioids, pesticides, and other toxins -- though officials caution that finding substances in the products will not indicate causality.
Zeller warned e-cigarette users not to buy vaping products from black market vendors, at least, because they may contain unregulated, questionable chemicals.
Teen use of vapes doubles
As the number of reported lung illnesses linked to vaping climbs, a new study shows that e-cigarette use among teens has doubled during the last two years.
Researchers found that 1 in 4 students in the 12th grade reported vaping nicotine in the last month, according to data published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. In addition, 1 in 11 students in the eighth grade and 1 in 5 students in the 10th grade have used e-cigarettes.
The findings come as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration looks to crack down on vapor companies -- including the dominant player in the industry, JUUL -- as studies show that companies are marketing to adolescents and teens.
In the case of JUUL, they have been accused of lying to young people about the safety of their products, in addition to legal and other concerns about their marketing efforts.
"Parents with school-aged children should begin paying close attention to these devices, which can look like simple flash drives, and frequently come in flavors that are appealing to youth," Richard Miech, a researcher at the University of Michigan and study lead researcher, said in a news release.
The researchers analyzed data for 42,531 students in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades collected as part of the 2019 Monitoring the Future Survey.
In addition to 25 percent of 12th graders, 20 percent of 10th graders and 9 percent of eighth-graders who vaped in the previous month, the researchers report that 12 percent of 12th graders, 7 percent of 10th graders and 2 percent of 8th graders reporting vaping on at least 20 of the previous 30 days.
Officials discourage use of e-cigarettes
While the health effects of vaping aren't certain, past research suggests the habit could have long-lasting negative effects. The National Institutes of Health has reported heavy nicotine concentration in e-cigarettes may disrupt neurological function in young, developing brains.
"I fear we are only beginning to learn the possible health risks and outcomes for youth," Nora D. Volkow, director of National Institute of Drug Abuse.
In response to the illnesses and growing concerns, the Trump administration last week announced a plan to plan to ban flavored e-cigarettes, and health officials in New York and in Michigan have already moved to ban e-cigarettes due to the outbreak.
"National leaders can assist parents by stepping up and implementing policies and programs to prevent use of these products by teens," Miech said.