Health Care

Influencers: Florida must act on curbing vaping-related disease

As cases of vaping-related lung illness soar across the country, eyes have turned to the government to keep people safe and hold companies accountable.

The illness largely affects young people and escalates from flu-like symptoms to life-threatening conditions in a matter of days or weeks.

In Florida alone, 68 cases of vaping-related lung illnesses have been reported, and a state Department of Health report in the spring indicated that nearly one in four Florida high school students say they are vaping.

In a new survey of the Florida Influencers, a group of 50 prominent political and policy figures from across the state, more than two-thirds want to regulate or ban the use of e-cigarettes in one way or another.

About half (47%) said the state should step in and ban e-cigarettes entirely.

Earlier this week in Tallahassee, Attorney General Ashley Moody announced that she is investigating nearly two dozen vaping companies that do business in the state and scrutinizing their marketing practices, particularly toward minors.

Florida law prohibits selling vaping products to anyone under 18, but according to the state Department of Health, youth vaping rates in the state have risen substantially.

“We’re looking at it, we’re going to be thorough in our investigation, and we will hold accountable any companies that are intentionally targeting and misleading our youth regarding vaping products,” Moody said at a press conference Wednesday at a Tampa high school.

Florida joins states across the country in taking action amid what some call a “vaping crisis.”

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker declared a public health emergency and announced a sweeping ban on the sale of all vape products. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer put a temporary ban on flavored vape products. Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington did the same. California Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged $20 million for a public awareness campaign about the dangers of vaping, and in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an emergency order to ban flavored e-cigarettes.

Twenty-one percent of the Influencers say Florida should ban only flavored e-cigarettes, and 26% were unsure of what the solution is.

Just 5% say the state shouldn’t impose more regulations.

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Those who want a total ban say it’s irresponsible to allow such products on the shelves until they are proven safe for consumption.

Ana Lopez-Blazquez, executive vice president at Baptist Health South Florida, says the hospital’s clinical experts are already telling patients — especially young people susceptible to the candy-themed flavors and targeted marketing — to refrain from using the products.

“There is no question that vaping is still bad for your health,” she said. “We do not really know all the secret ingredients inside the vaping products — or what is being added to them … in sum, while we do not have significant scientific proof yet, we do know e-cigarettes are harmful to one’s health and should be banned entirely.’’

Frank DiBello, the CEO of Space Florida, emphasized that while free markets are a “critical element of our economic success, health concerns come first.”

“While many people make the free choice to purchase and consume vape products, thus far they have not been validated as safe,” he said. “In fact, there are increasingly more health-related concerns and troubling information concerning vaping products, [it is] sufficient to ban their sale until rigorously proven safe for the marketplace.’’

Because the population affected by vaping-related illness is quite young, some Influencers say banning only flavored e-cigarettes could help protect young people who are attracted to flavors like cotton candy, mango and sour candy.

“Banning them altogether shouldn’t be an option unless we’re prepared to ban regular cigarettes, too,” said Annie Lord, the executive director of Miami Homes for All. “Banning flavored e-cigarettes could cut down on addiction among minors. Additionally, we should focus on regulations on e-cigarette products and paraphernalia to limit consumers’ exposure to harmful chemicals that have led to the recent vaping-associated deaths.’’

Those who are less sure about a potential ban say there needs to be more science and a better understanding of the risks before bans are introduced.

Influencers who are unsure still support regulations, limits and recommendations, however.

Luis Garcia, CEO of Miami-based Adonel Concrete, says there is still too much unknown to impose outright bans.

“Healthcare professionals seem puzzled as to what is causing the illnesses and deaths in youngsters who are using e-cigarette products,” he said. “Studies are now being conducted that will offer a better understanding of the risks which should dictate what if any bans are warranted.’’

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.