By Kari Paul, MarketWatch
Children are using e-cigarettes at epidemic levels — and the Food and Drug Administration is going into crisis mode to address the problem.
The FDA announced Tuesday it will unveil “forceful” steps in mid-November to cut down on youth use of e-cigarettes, potentially including increased enforcement of identification and age verification requirements. This comes after the agency issued a call to action in September to address the “alarming increase in youth use of e-cigarettes” and threatened to ban all flavored e-cigarettes.
“We gave ample warnings of the worrisome trends we were observing with respect to rising youth popularity of these products,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement Tuesday. “Now we have hard data to support that public health tragedy that is now underway.”
Cigarette smoking — as in the traditional kind involving tobacco leaves and paper — hit a historic low among teens in 2017, with only 8% of teens saying they have smoked tobacco in the past 30 days, a decrease from 13.4% in 2013. However, between 2011 and 2015 the use of e-cigarettes jumped from 1.5% to 16% among high schoolers. Nicotine vapes are extremely popular with young people: Underage teens are 16 times more likely to use e-cigarette JUUL than older groups, a study published Tuesday by the anti-tobacco lobbying group Truth Initiative found. Studies have shown e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes . But vaping is not harmless, Truth Initiative chief executive officer Robin Koval said.
“We do not fully know the health impact, and we should not be conducting an experiment on our children, which is exactly what we are doing,” she said.
The FDA is developing its plan to address the problem by working directly with the five companies that represent more than 97% of youth e-cigarette use: Altria Group Inc. /zigman2/quotes/208895754/composite MO -0.09% , JUUL Labs Inc., Reynolds American Inc., Fontem Ventures /zigman2/quotes/208789104/delayed UK:IMB -2.28% and Japan Tobacco Inc. /zigman2/quotes/208949046/delayed JAPAF +0.43% . Stocks for the companies dropped after the FDA announced the plan to crack down on youth consumption of e-cigarettes.
Last week Altria said it would halt sales of many flavored e-cigarette pods that appeal to young smokers.
An Altria spokesman told MarketWatch on Tuesday that the company “share[s] the FDA’s concern with youth usage of e-vapor products and want to be part of the solution.”
“We appreciated the opportunity to meet with the FDA to share our thoughts and look forward to addressing this problem while preserving the long-term promise of potential harm reduction products,” a spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for Japan Tobacco International USA Inc., whose parent company is Japan Tobacco Inc. /zigman2/quotes/208949046/delayed JAPAF +0.43% , told MarketWatch it values the opportunity to provide its views to the FDA. “We recently met with the FDA to outline our responsible practices and formally share our thoughts with the agency, demonstrating our commitment to reduce youth access to vapor products,” a representative told MarketWatch.
Reynolds American Inc. and Fontem Ventures did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
Gottlieb said the companies have “acknowledged the serious public health consequences associated with youth use of tobacco products” and that flavored products may be particularly appealing to kids. JUUL, for example, offers pods for its USB-shaped devices in “cool cucumber” and “crème brulée” flavors.
A spokeswoman for JUUL said the company has had “constructive” conversations with the FDA and is developing a proposal to fight underage use of its product. “Our plan will outline further actions we will take to keep the JUUL device out of the hands of young people,” spokeswoman Victoria Davis said in a statement. “We want to be part of the solution in preventing underage use, and we believe it will take industry and regulators working together to restrict youth access.”
Lawsuits have charged that JUUL is deceptively marketed as a healthy alternative to traditional smoking. Only a minority of teens — 25% — who had recently used the JUUL knew that the device contained the addictive stimulant nicotine, a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Tobacco Control in April found. One JUUL pod is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes both in nicotine content and number of puffs and some teens report going through a whole pod a day.
JUUL has significantly increased its lobbying as the FDA has stepped up scrutiny of the industry.
The FDA said often teens who are old enough to legally purchase e-cigarettes (18 in most states) buy them legally and then sell them to minors. The agency is considering endorsing changing the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21 years old, officials said Tuesday. However, some studies have suggested such regulations can backfire: in states with laws restricting teens from buying e-cigarettes, use of traditional paper-and-tobacco cigarettes increased.