Can vaping trigger seizures? Health officials investigate e-cigarette risks

/ CBS/AP

Outgoing FDA commissioner on e-cig dangers

Washington – U.S. health officials are investigating whether electronic cigarettes may trigger seizures in some people who use the nicotine-vaping devices. The Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday it has reviewed 35 reports of seizures among e-cigarettes users, mainly in young people.

Regulators stressed it's not yet clear whether vaping is responsible. But they said they're concerned and encouraged the public to report information about the issue.
These cases warrant "investigation into whether there is in fact a connection," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. Gottlieb is stepping down on Friday after nearly two years heading the agency.

Cases go back to 2010 and were reported to the FDA or poison control centers around the country. Regulators said they detected an uptick in reports beginning mid-2018. While they represent a tiny fraction of Americans who have used e-cigarettes, many safety issues with foods, supplements and other consumer products can go unrecognized because reporting is voluntary.

The announcement comes the day after Gottlieb told CBS News' Dr. Jon LaPook the FDA is so concerned about the dangerous effects of e-cigarettes on American youth that the products may have to be pulled from stores. While Gottlieb acknowledged the devices may help wean some smokers off traditional cigarettes, he stressed that their risks cannot be ignored.

"We think that these products can offer an alternative for currently addicted adult smokers to migrate off of combustible tobacco onto something that doesn't have all the same risks associated with it. But it can't come at the expense of addicting a whole generation of kids onto nicotine through these e-cigarette products," Gottlieb said in the interview.

Outgoing FDA chief weighs ban on pod-based e-cigarettes if youth rates keep spiking

Most e-cigarettes heat a flavored nicotine solution into an inhalable vapor. The battery-powered devices have grown into a multibillion dollar industry though there are few standards, including how much nicotine they deliver. Additionally, many refillable e-cigarettes can be used with nicotine formulas of varying strength.
Nicotine poisoning can cause seizures, convulsions, vomiting and brain injury. The FDA has previously warned of potentially fatal nicotine poisoning in infants and children who accidentally swallowed nicotine solutions.
Seizures usually last a few seconds or minutes and rarely cause permanent injury. But they can be a sign of underlying neurological disorders that need medical attention.
The agency said the handful of seizure reports often lack information about the brand of e-cigarette or whether users had a medical condition that might have contributed. In some cases, e-cigarettes were being used with drugs like marijuana and amphetamines. Some seizures were reported after just a few puffs of the device, others after a day of use.
The FDA is asking consumers to report problems to an online site. The agency is seeking details about vaping brands and models and whether users who have experienced problems were also taking medications, supplements or other drugs.
It's not the first time the FDA has flagged a potential health hazard with vaping devices — the agency has warned of rare burns and explosions related to overheating of batteries that power the devices.
The latest concern comes amid a nationwide push to fight underage use of e-cigarettes, which have surged in popularity among high school and middle school students. Last month the FDA outlined new restrictions on retail and online sales of most flavored e-cigarettes. Meanwhile, local and state officials are considering age restrictions, taxes and flavor bans to keep the products away from teenagers.

On Tuesday, Gottlieb noted that e-cigarettes "can offer an alternative for currently addicted adult smokers to migrate off of combustible tobacco onto something that doesn't have all the same risks associated with it. But it can't come at the expense of addicting a whole generation of kids onto nicotine through these e-cigarette products."

"If we see another sharp increase in the youth rates this year, we're gonna have to look at more draconian measures like potentially taking these pod-based products off the market entirely," he continued.

First published on April 3, 2019 / 2:57 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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