E-cigarette use is an 'epidemic', FDA chief says

PlayTolga Akmen  AFP  Getty Images FILE

PlayTolga Akmen AFP Getty Images FILE

"I've been warning the e-cigarette industry for more than a year that they needed to do much more to stem these youth trends", he said.

To gain clearance to return to the market, the companies would have to prove that the benefits to adults who use e-cigarettes in order to stop smoking traditional cigarettes outweigh the risks associated with youth vaping. The FDA is now developing a survey to determine what percentage of youth vapers are using Juul products, Gottlieb said.

This is the latest in a series of steps the FDA is taking to limit children's use of e-cigarettes, which has "reached an epidemic proportion" in the U.S., FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb announced Wednesday.

Shortly after the launch, the FDA cracked down on e-liquids marketed to resemble kid-friendly foods like juice boxes, candy and cookies. "These five brands now comprise over 97 percent of the USA market for e-cigarettes", the FDA said. The products being targeted are: Juul, MarkTen by the Altria Group, the maker of Malboro cigarettes in the US, Blu by Fontem Ventures, Vuse, by British American Tobacco, the company that makes Camel cigarettes, and a device called Logic. The premise of such threats is that the interests of adults who might want to switch from smoking to a far less hazardous form of nicotine consumption should be sacrificed for the sake of curtailing e-cigarette use by minors, which is already illegal.

San Francisco-based Juul, which commands over 60 percent of the e-cigarette market, said it is working to prevent underage use of its products but added that flavors can help adult smokers quit cigarettes. Despite the constant warnings that increased experimentation with e-cigarettes would lead to more smoking, consumption of conventional cigarettes by teenagers stubbornly continues to decline, reaching a record low a year ago in the Monitoring the Future Study, which began in 1975.

Budding research on e-cigarettes also suggests that these flavors contain terpenes that may be more damaging to the lungs than other flavors are.

"We welcome FDA's action today and look forward to sharing our thoughts about how to prevent and reduce youth use, an issue we have focused on for decades", Altria spokesman George Parman said in a statement.

If the plans fall short, the FDA could block sales of the products by enforcing a requirement that companies provide detailed design and health data about their products before marketing them.

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Since 2017, FDA officials have discussed e-cigarettes as a potential tool to ween adult smokers off cigarettes.

Shares of Big Tobacco companies surged in trading Wednesday.

Shares of British American Tobacco were up almost 6 percent and shares of cigarette-maker Imperial Brands PLC were up more than 3 percent. The agency issued 12 warning letters to companies that it says have deceptive marketing labels on e-liquids.

However, he seemed reluctant to give up on flavored nicotine, because he said it appeals to adult cigarette smokers.

"JUUL Labs will work proactively with FDA in response to its request. In the coming weeks, we'll take additional action under our Youth Tobacco Prevention Plan to immediately address the youth access to, and the appeal of, these products". Regulators said it was the largest coordinated crackdown in the agency's history.

Now, Gottlieb is coordinating the largest scale initiative to enforce regulations against selling e-cigarettes to-date.

"I'm here to tell them today that this prior approach is over", he said.

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