Health and Science

Ex-FDA chief Gottlieb blames outbreak of deadly vaping illness on illegal nicotine products

Key Points
  • "If we didn't have so many kids using e-cigarettes we wouldn't have kids put at risk for acute lung injuries," says Dr. Scott Gottlieb.
  • Health officials have linked the mysterious lung illness to vaping, though they're still trying to figure out the exact cause. The median age of the victims is 19.
  • "It appears that many of these acute lung injuries are being driven by illegal products that have oils in them," says Gottlieb,
Acute lung injuries are being driven by illegal vaping products: Former FDA Commissioner

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb blamed a sudden outbreak of what resembles a rare type of pneumonia in young adults on illegal and unregulated vaping products that have flooded the market in recent years.

"It's not clear that these acute lung injuries are being caused by the legally sold regulated products, which FDA does oversee the manufacture of," Gottlieb said Wednesday on "Squawk Box." "It appears that many of these acute lung injuries are being driven by illegal products that have oils in them."

U.S. health officials are scrambling to contain two public crises right now: a surge in teen vaping and a mysterious lung disease that's sickened hundreds and killed at least 11, mostly young men, in recent weeks.

"The two crises are not completely disconnected," said Gottlieb, a health advocate and Pfizer board member who is also a CNBC contributor. "If we didn't have so many kids using e-cigarettes we wouldn't have kids put at risk for acute lung injuries," he added.

On Tuesday, a top CDC official told Congress that "hundreds" of new cases of a vaping-related lung disease have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just in the past week. There have been 11 fatalities. The median age of the victims of the vaping lung disease is 19. Health officials have linked the illness to vaping, though they are still trying to identify the exact cause.

Gottlieb, also a medical doctor, did stress that legally sold vapes, like Juul or NJOY, are not necessarily safe, since they "certainly cause chronic lung injury" like any other nicotine product.

At the House panel hearing Tuesday, CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat flagged e-cigarette leader Juul's use of salts in its vaping devices as particularly dangerous for teenagers.

"Juul products use nicotine salts, which can lead to much more available nicotine," she said, adding that doctors believe the salts allow nicotine to "cross the blood brain barrier and lead to potentially more effect on the developing brain."

Gottlieb appeared on CNBC shortly after news broke Wednesday that Kevin Burns resigned as CEO of Juul. Former Altria executive K.C. Crosthwaite will take his place. Juul also suspended all broadcast, print and digital advertising in the U.S. The company said it will not lobby the Trump administration on its plans to ban flavored e-cigarettes from the market and will comply when effective.

The FDA is currently finalizing its guidance to remove all nontobacco flavors of e-cigarettes, including mint and menthol, from the market within 30 days. Companies might be able to reintroduce their flavors at a later date, so long as they submit a formal application and receive approval from regulators.

"If you ask kids what they use, they don't say 'I vape,' they say, 'I Juul,'" said Gottlieb, who led an anti-vaping crusade when he was the head of the FDA. He left the agency in April.

Lung illnesses and teen addiction aside, e-cigarette companies often market their products as healthier alternatives to traditional cigarettes and as a way that adults can wean themselves off of the habit. Some research does back up those claims.

On Tuesday. Fred Hassan, a longtime pharma executive turned health-care investor, said on CNBC that if vaping is "truly helpful to quit smoking, they should be invited to do the research and then file their application with the FDA."

"If it does good things like Nicorette Gum, let's do it," said Hassan, who was CEO of Pharmacia, a pioneer in nicotine gum and the patch as smoking cessation tools.

Former FDA Commissioner: Juul created this teen vaping epidemic