By Gabriella Borter and Matthew Lavietes
(Reuters) – Within weeks, New Jersey could become the latest state to restrict e-cigarette use, with the governor on Thursday launching a task force to find ways to curb vaping, linked by U.S. health officials to hundreds of respiratory illnesses and a half-dozen deaths.
“As of this moment, there is no safe vape,” Governor Phil Murphy said at a media briefing, adding he was concerned about both teen use and the recent illnesses. “The only safe alternative to smoking is not smoking.”
The task force, led by the New Jersey Department of Health, will make recommendations in three weeks.
The announcement comes a day after the Trump administration proposed a federal ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarette products to discourage vaping, especially by minors, who gravitate toward the sweeter varieties. The proposed ban would only allow the sale of tobacco-flavored vapes.
More than a quarter of U.S. high school students used e-cigarettes in the past month, up from 20.8% of students last year, according to preliminary data released by the Health and Human Services Department on Wednesday.
Market leader Juul Labs Inc, which is 35% owned by Marlboro maker Altria Group Inc, said this week the company has taken steps to reduce its appeal among youth.
The American Vaping Association, which advocates for cigarette smokers to switch to nicotine-based vaping devices, has blamed the illnesses on vaping illicit THC products.
Earlier this week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed banning flavored e-cigarettes, following a ban imposed in Michigan last week. San Francisco took the ban one step further in June, banning the sale of all e-cigarettes starting in 2020.
E-cigarettes were introduced to the U.S. market more than a decade ago as an alternative for cigarette-addicted adults.
Six deaths have been linked to vaping, and U.S. public health officials are investigating 450 cases of potential vaping-related lung illnesses across 33 states and one U.S. territory.
New Jersey has three confirmed cases of the mysterious lung illness attributed to vaping and is investigating 19 others, Murphy said.
A nationwide investigation led by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not definitively linked the illnesses to any specific e-cigarette product or ingredient. Even so, health officials have expressed suspicions about the effect of inhaling vitamin E acetate, a substance contained in some THC vaping products.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Matthew Lavietes in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker)