In an attempt to engineer an unforgettable historic moment like the famous 1994 “seven dwarves” hearing, House members beat, bullied and prodded executives from the top five e-cigarette manufacturers in a subcommittee hearing Wednesday morning. And, as in last summer’s House hearing on JUUL, the executives mostly just sat there and accepted the beating.
The House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Energy and Commerce titled the hearing, “Vaping in America: E-Cigarette Manufacturers’ Impact on Public Health,” but there wasn’t much discussion of legitimate public health questions. The two-hour hearing was little more than a chance for the subcommittee members to ask gotcha questions and relentlessly flail the executives.
The hearing witnesses were:
The chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee, New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone, showed up mainly to promote his bill HR 2339, the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act. The legislation was introduced last year, and a companion version was introduced last month in the Senate by Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown. The bill is expected to begin moving in the House soon.
The Pallone bill proposes a ban of all flavored products not approved by the FDA, elimination of online sales, $100 million in user fees to be collected annually from vaping companies, regulation of products containing synthetic nicotine, and advertising restrictions. If passed, HR 2339 would destroy whatever is left of the legal vaping market after the PMTA process is in place.
The bill is supported by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which means it will be promoted by all tobacco control groups, including the heart and lung associations and the American Academy of Pediatrics. A coordinated effort is expected from all of these groups, funded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s $160 million gift to Tobacco-Free Kids.
While some of the subcommittee members had real questions for the executives, Pallone was mostly interested in lecturing the captive witnesses and expressing his bizarre understanding of vaping risks. The few desultory questions he asked—while sighing with world-weary contempt—were just frames for his insulting speeches.
“I heard all of you over and over again say you were responsible men, men of integrity,” said Pallone. “That is not true. People who have integrity and are responsible don’t sell products that…you admit make people sick, probably kill people.”
“I don’t believe for one minute that any of you did not purposely target young people,” said the long-time tobacco warrior. To Pallone and his allies, vaping manufacturers are the same as cigarette manufacturers, and the only good tobacco company is a dead tobacco company.
The subcommittee’s chairwoman, Colorado Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette, opened the questioning by asking all the witnesses if nicotine is addictive and if their products could cause addiction. All answered yes. Then she brought out the question she hoped would eventually secure her place in history, just as Rep. Ron Wyden (now a Senator) was “immortalized” when he asked the seven cigarette company CEO’s if nicotine was addictive on live TV nearly 26 years ago.
“Do you agree with the medical studies that show that nicotine can have negative consequences for respiratory health, and can cause an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and can lead to heart disease, and also could harm brain development in young people?” asked DeGette.
The executives looked puzzled, and none was willing to answer yes or no, as DeGette had told them they should. They repeated that nicotine is addictive and that it “can cause harm,” but none were aware of the studies she referred to. They were probably familiar with the research on rodents that purports to show effects by nicotine on the adolescent brain, but what were these other studies?
“I find it fascinating no one wants to talk about what that harm is!” DeGette said. She reiterated the list of health problems “the medical studies show.” She added that “we don’t really know” if e-cigarettes cause the same harm as combustible cigarettes.
What were these studies that proved heart and lung damage from nicotine? Such proof has long been sought by tobacco control activists, so they would have something more concrete than research on rodents and disembodied cells to use in their attempts to ban non-combustible nicotine products. DeGette moved on without naming the studies she had referenced.
Other subcommittee members ran through the usual list of concerns, many using the occasion to display their protector-of-children bonafides. West Virginia Republican David McKinley brought up ultrafine particles, the pet concern of anti-nicotine activist Stanton Glantz. All aerosols are made up of particles, but all particles are not equally concerning.
No one had explained to the very bothered Congressman that e-liquid particles are liquid droplets, not tiny pieces of combusted tobacco and paper like the ultrafine particles in cigarette smoke. He went on in detail explaining his understanding of particle size, describing how small a micron is.
Getting nowhere with the mystified e-cig bosses, he decided to grill them over what they were doing to prevent the “aftermarket introduction” of THC and vitamin E acetate into their products. “Are any of you doing ANYTHING” about it, he huffed. Cannabis oil needs a specific kind of atomizer that is very different from those designed for e-liquid.
Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky adopted an almost comically antagonistic attitude, but obviously hadn’t read her Tobacco-Free Kids briefing beforehand. Like most of the subcommittee, she was mostly interested in looking tough on the corporate fatcats for the folks back home.
“Thanks to your products, this is an entire generation of young people that are now hooked on nicotine,” Schakowsky said, her eyes burning like coals. “And we’ve heard discussion about what that problem can be,” she added tentatively, then trailed off.
“And the microns!” she said, gratefully remembering McKinley’s battle with the ultrafine particle explanation.
There were some moments of reason, but they were rare. South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan logically reminded the room that Europe has seen no examples of the lung injuries that have killed 60 Americans in recent months. He even quoted Clive Bates.
There were many references to the coming deadline to submit Premarket Tobacco Applications (PMTAs) to the FDA. Most of the executives said their companies believe the PMTA process will be good for the industry. But three of the five vaping companies are owned by the tobacco industry, and a fourth (JUUL) has accepted a significant investment from Altria. While at least four of the companies have enough money to submit all the PMTAs they want, small vaping businesses will have little chance of surviving in the post-PMTA legal market.
Ranking Member Republican Brett Guthrie of Kentucky gave the witnesses opportunities to better explain themselves, but they were wary of extending their comments, and remained cautious in their responses.
Logic boss Jerry Loftin unfortunately devoted time more than once to imply that the other manufacturers were less committed to avoiding youth sales than his company. That backfired once when New York Democrat Yvette Clark reminded him that he is part of an industry and “The whole industry is basically under scrutiny right now.”
It’s a good lesson for vaping manufacturers and retailers—whether large like Logic or small like vape shop owners. Any time a representative of any industry justifies their practices by throwing shade on others in the industry, it reflects poorly on all. That is always true. It sounds terrible when one company blames another for its problems, and it never convinces a skeptical outsider.
At the end of the hearing, Chair DeGette returned to her questions about the heart and lung effects of vaping. “I was extremely dismayed when I asked you about the health problems with nicotine that you were all extremely vague with your answers,” she said.
“It’s been established that nicotine itself has severe health risks,” she stated. She then said she had two reports—”surveys of the medical research”—that prove it. The first, from the Surgeon General, says that nicotine use “can harm the developing brain.” She then explained that nicotine can harm fetuses and growing children. DeGette’s “proof” from the Surgeon General is not studies of known effects, but a laundry list of cans, mights and maybes, sprinkled with the credibility conferred by misty memories of reports delivered by Surgeons General past.
Then she pulled out a copy of an obscure 2015 paper from the Indian Journal of Medical and Paediatric Oncology. According to Finnish vaping advocate Jukka Kelovuori, the paper is “the first hit when someone googles ‘harmful effects of nicotine’ and the paper is named exactly that. Mostly cell and animal studies. Hyperbolic junk by Indian anti-nicotine zealots who want a monopoly on prescribing nicotine and a ban on [over-the-counter] NRT.”
“There is an increased risk of cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal disorders,” says the paper’s abstract. “There is decreased immune response and it also poses ill impacts on the reproductive health. It affects the cell proliferation, oxidative stress, apoptosis, DNA mutation by various mechanisms which leads [sic] to cancer. It also affects the tumor proliferation and metastasis and causes resistance to chemo and radio therapeutic agents.”
Obviously, her staff had struggled to find actual evidence of nicotine’s supposedly horrific effects. Luckily for the panicky interns, Google’s search metrics don’t include a quality scale, and Rep. DeGette is that rare reader willing to believe anything at all if it confirms her existing suspicions. She quoted much of the abstract out loud, then helpfully offered a copy to each e-cig exec, because she said, “I think you need to be aware that once these kids get addicted then the nicotine is also going to have lifelong impacts—as long as they stay addicted.”
The witnesses sat expressionless as DeGette lectured them from the fringe medical gazette. They were thrilled to be nearing the end of the bizarre ordeal, and probably eager to get outside and inhale some ultrafine particles as they headed off toward what is still a very uncertain future.