As the self-proclaimed “Miss Science” of Congress, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, chair of the House Oversight and Investigation Committee, is an ardent supporter of scientific evidence in public policy. “Over the years,” she said, “I realized that if you don’t have rigorous scientific research in public policy, then you won’t be able to find solutions that work.”
Speaking at the Colorado Science Policy Summit at CU Anschutz, recently hosted by Project Bridge, a science communication and policy organization led by CU Anschutz graduate students and postdocs, DeGette gave several examples of how scientific research influenced the crafting of public policy — and one striking example of the opposite: how the lack of legislative oversight failed to protect consumers.
That failure, said DeGette, who represents Colorado’s 1st congressional district, is vaping.
Recent weeks have seen a public health crisis over vaping, with hundreds of users becoming sickened and even some deaths, with outcry over the lack of vaping oversight and scientific evidence of safety.
Vaping: a case study in the failure of legislative oversight
According to DeGette, vaping devices have been on the market for a few years now with no FDA review or oversight, and no idea of what vaping does to the human body. She said, “No one realized what the dangers were, particularly for people under the age of 25 whose lungs are still developing.”
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (center) stands with Project Bridge founder Erin Golden (left) and president Lisbet Finseth. Photo by Jessica Ponder.
She cited evidence that incidence of teen vaping in particular has skyrocketed by 40%, due in part to flavored cartridges – such as gummy bear or cotton candy – that attract adolescents in particular. DeGette said the amount of nicotine in one cartridge is higher than an entire pack of cigarettes, resulting in junior high and high school students becoming highly addicted. The Trump administration recently proposed the ban of such flavors, but DeGette said further steps need to be taken, including raising the legal age for smoking and vaping to 21.
“Is it not incredible that we have millions of people, including high school students, that are using a system that we have no scientific data on?” DeGette asked.
Not a smoking-cessation aid
DeGette recently chaired a hearing on vaping in the House Oversight and Investigation Committee. One of the defenses of vaping is that it’s safer than cigarettes, and may be useful for adults trying to quit smoking. DeGette said the problem with this narrative is that all the evidence is anecdotal, and that controlled clinical studies are needed to assess vaping’s safety.
“There are FDA-approved tools to help people quit smoking, and vaping is not one of them,” she said. Because vaping devices heat up oil and water to deliver nicotine into the lungs, DeGette said, new studies suggest that the delivery system itself may be dangerous to the human body.
Ned Sharpless, MD, acting director of the FDA, attended the committee’s vaping hearing and reaffirmed the FDA’s commitment to reducing vaping, particularly in youth. He also provided details on the recent vaping illness outbreak, describing the crisis as “an outbreak of severe respiratory lung injury associated with the use of vaping products, which has possibly sickened over 530 people from 38 states and one U.S. Territory. Sadly, seven deaths have been confirmed in California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, and Oregon. These illnesses do not appear to be due to infectious diseases but rather appear to be associated with a chemical exposure from vaping products.”
DeGette: Be advocates for your field of study
DeGette acknowledged the audience comprised mostly of graduate students and postdocs, and said, “Many of you went into research so you wouldn’t have to do public speaking. I’m sorry to say that you’re wrong — you are going to have to work with people like me, because it’s so important for you to be advocates for your field of study.”
The congresswoman concluded by reiterating that science policy needs to be bi-partisan, and vouched for the general willingness of most elected officials to consider scientific evidence, saying, “We are not scary people. We are eager and happy to learn about the science.”
“Sometimes it takes a lot longer with politics, and the more politically heated it is, the longer it takes,” she said.
Guest Contributor: Shawna Matthews, a CU Anschutz postdoc