Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and consistently the most competent person in the Trump administration, just sent a clear message to the vaping industry: He’s not tolerating its nonsense.
The FDA, Gottlieb announced Tuesday, has uncovered dozens of legal violations in the sale of e-cigarette products to teenagers through regular and online retailers. The agency has already issued 40 warning letters and has requested that Juul Labs, a popular e-cig brand, submit information to help figure out why its products have been so appealing to young people.
Hallelujah. In cracking down on e-cigarette sales, Gottlieb is doing more than just enforcing the age restriction the FDA instituted in 2016. He is making clear where he stands in the raging debate about e-cigarettes and their impact on public health.
Vaping advocates will likely respond to Gottlieb’s announcement with outrage. They will remind us that e-cigarettes are much safer than combustible tobacco products. They will insist that e-cigarettes are effective at saving lives, offering personal anecdotes and testimonials about how the products helped people quit smoking. And they will shrug off all of the research highlighting the damaging potential of e-cigarettes.
Be skeptical of this defense. Research consistently shows that e-cigarettes increases the risk of young people being introduced to tobacco products, as this recent analysis of 800 peer-reviewed studies shows. In fact, one study projects that for every one person who used e-cigarettes to quit smoking in 2015, another 81 young people will eventually become daily cigarette users through e-cigarette use that year.
If the reality turns out to be as dire as researchers suggest, decades of steady progress to reduce tobacco use among young people will be imperiled. Thankfully, we saw a sharp decline in e-cigarette usage last year, in large part due to the FDA’s 2016 regulations prohibiting e-cigarette sales to those younger than 18.
But it’s still notoriously easy for young people to circumvent the age restrictions. Many of them purchase the products through online vendors, which simply ask buyers for their age without verification.
And while Gottlieb is looking for more information as to why these products are so popular among teens, the answer probably won’t be too surprising. Just look at a couple of the flavored juices you can purchase to vape, which include — but is certainly not limited to — Red Bull, “Stoned Smurf,” “Fruity Fun Cereal” and “Unicorn Poop.” Do these sound like they’re being marketed to adults trying to quit smoking?
Any honest assessment of vaping industry practices would conclude that it’s trying to build a customer base of young adults to consume addictive, nicotine-based products. And, yes, some of those young people are teens who will be at greater risk of becoming habitual smokers later in life.
This is a public health threat, plain and simple. Gottlieb is right to hold the vaping industry accountable and to make sure these products stay out of the hands of minors.