Vaping-related illnesses surge as FDA discloses criminal probe

Federal officials said Thursday that at least 530 people have now become sickened by a mysterious vaping-related lung illness, part of a growing national outbreak.

In a sign of the seriousness of the e-cigarette investigation, the enforcement arm of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has begun a parallel probe. Officials said they still do not know the cause of the lung injuries that are making people so sick. There have been seven confirmed deaths. But FDA officials disclosed Thursday that investigators from FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations have been pursuing a parallel investigation since the illnesses were first reported earlier this summer.

"The focus is on the supply chain," said Mitch Zeller, director of FDA's Center for Tobacco Products. The office is not pursuing prosecution of people for personal use of any controlled substances, he said.

All reported cases had a history of e-cigarette or vaping use, officials have said. People have reported a history of using e-cigarette products containing THC, or using both nicotine and THC, and some have also said they only used nicotine products. Many people have said they used black market or illicit THC products.

[Number of vaping-linked deaths, illnesses rises across U.S., but none reported in Alaska, state health department says]

Patients reported symptoms of coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, and in some instances, vomiting or diarrhea.

Health experts have not yet isolated a single e-cigarette product or substance as the underlying culprit. But officials have said they suspect that a form of chemical exposure has made the patients ill.

“This is a complex investigation that spans many states and involves hundreds of cases and a wide variety of substances and products,” said Anne Schuchat, CDC’s principal deputy director during a call with reporters. “We at CDC are very concerned about the occurrence of life-threatening illnesses in otherwise healthy people reported from around the country.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.