Today, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially announced plans to limit the sale of sweet-flavored e-cigarette products in places where people under the age of 18 can freely shop. The agency will also take aim at flavored cigars and menthol-flavored cigarettes in an effort to keep kids from getting hooked on anyproducts that contain nicotine.
This isn’t a complete ban on flavored e-cigarette products, and it’s weaker than the proposal that was teased last week before the FDA officially announced it. All e-liquids — in pods, bottles, and cigalikes — in traditional tobacco flavors, as well as mint and menthol, can stay on the shelves of convenience stores and gas stations. Stores can sell products in more kid-friendly flavors only if they don’t let in underage consumers, or if the products are placed in an age-restricted section where kids can’t see them, much less buy the merchandise. E-cigarette manufacturers can continue to sell their fruity- and dessert-flavored cartridges online, provided they have adequate age verification measures in place.
The appeal of flavored products isn’t new; previous research reports that flavor preferences drive vaping more for adolescents than for adults. “It’s the exact reason that flavored cigarettes were banned. We’re not reinventing anything here, we’ve already lived this,” says Meghan Morean, a psychology professor at Oberlin College who has studied the appeal of flavors. And a massive report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggests that kids who start vaping are more likely to try cigarettes than their peers.
This new report of skyrocketing vaping in high schools and middle schools has ignited a push for more regulation. “These increases must stop,” Gottlieb says. “I will not allow a generation of children to become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes.”
That 2022 deadline will still be in place for the mint, menthol, and tobacco flavored products, Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s center for tobacco products, said in a press briefing. The changes the FDA is looking for would limit the sale of flavored e-cigarette products to in-person or online locations with strict age restrictions. “It doesn’t have to go through the formal rule-making process — it’s essentially something the FDA can just do,” says Micah Berman, an associate professor of public health and law at The Ohio State University.
On the e-cigarette side, today’s announcement is the culmination of months of back and forth between the FDA and major e-cigarette companies, including vaping giant Juul. In April, the agency asked Juul for information that might explain why the vape is so popular among teens. The FDA conducted a surprise inspection of the company’s San Francisco headquarters earlier this fall, and seized more than a thousand pages of documents.
In September, the agency gave Juul and the companies behind MarkTen, Vuse, Blu, and Logic e-cigarettes 60 days to come up with plans to keep their products out of teens’ mouths. Juul voluntarily announced its own plan on Tuesday. It included cutting its supply of fruity and dessert-flavored nicotine pods to brick-and-mortar stores, and vacating its Facebook and Instagram pages. (The accounts are still online and still have followers. They’re just empty.)
Still, the FDA’s restrictions are late and limited, Berman says. If the FDA had stuck with its original timeline for premarket review, “the FDA would be in a very different position.” As it stands, we’ve seen Juul take off since the agency extended the deadline, and it now dominates more than 70 percent of the market, according to CNBC. Youth vaping rates have continued to climb and there’s still a lot to learn about the long-term effects of vaping. “Because we don’t have premarket review, we still don’t have a whole lot of data about these products,” Berman says. “We don’t know what the companies know, and we’re not going to unless we start going through this process.”
It’s hard to say what the effects of the ban will be over the long term, Morean says. It could play out in a few different ways. If the main driver of youth vaping is those sweet flavors, she says, “one option would be that we’ll see a dramatic decrease in the amount of kids who are up-taking these products.” But if the draw to vaping is really the device, like Juul, kids might just switch to the pods that are still on shelves. “Especially the cooling flavors, like mint or menthol, because we see kids are more likely to start using tobacco cigarettes that are menthol flavored,” Morean says.
That’s why Gottlieb put e-cigarette companies on notice, and if kids keep using menthol or mint-flavored pods, they’ll have to reconsider the policy. Going forward, Gottlieb is hopeful these steps will make a dent in the rise of youth vaping. “We’ll never eliminate any youth experimentation. We’re wide-eyed about this,” he said in a press briefing. “But levels of youth use and the growth in the youth use that we see simply are intolerable.”