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Marlboro maker Altria to halt sales of flavored e-cigarettes amid concerns about youth-vaping surge

An e-cigarette smoker in Chicago in 2014. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Altria Group, responding to federal regulators' worries about rising rates of teen vaping and the possible health implications, said Thursday it would stop selling its pod-based e-cigarettes, at least temporarily.

The tobacco manufacturer, which also makes Marlboro cigarettes, said it would not put the vaping products back on the market until they get federal clearance or “the youth issue is otherwise addressed.”

That means a halt in sales of MarkTen Elite and MarkTen pod-based products. Those pods are essentially cartridges that hold liquids that are turned into vapor before being inhaled. Such pods have become increasingly popular because of their portability and ease of use. The vaping products currently do not need a Food and Drug Administration sign-off if they were on the market before August 2016.

Altria holds about 9 percent of the e-cigarette market in the United States, according to a Wells Fargo analysis of Nielsen data, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Juul Labs, which pioneered an e-cigarette that resembles a USB drive, controls 62 percent of the market, according to data that does not include online sales, the Journal reported.

Altria’s move comes at a pivotal moment as the FDA struggles to rein in what Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has declared “an epidemic” of underage use of e-cigarettes. In recent months, Gottlieb has warned manufacturers that he is considering prohibiting or restricting the sale of flavored vaping products, which are thought to be especially appealing to younger people. He also has signaled the possibility of banning online sales of e-cigarettes.

At a conference on tobacco regulation in Washington on Thursday, Jose Luis Murillo, vice president for regulatory affairs at Altria Client Services, said the company wants to be “part of the solution” on youth vaping and not risk being a contributor to the problem.

Mitchell Zeller, who is director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products and also attended the conference, did not immediately respond to the Altria action but said that the FDA sees the rise in teen vaping as a public health crisis — in part because some proportion of those who vape will probably end up smoking more-dangerous conventional cigarettes. He said a crackdown on sales to minors will continue.

“We’re all standing on this burning platform, and we all need to figure out what to do,” he told an audience of industry and public health representatives.

Gottlieb announced in September that preliminary federal data suggests that underage vaping increased 77 percent this year over last year among high school students. Use increased almost 50 percent among middle school students in the same period. He directed several e-cigarette manufacturers, including Altria, to provide plans on how they would keep their products out of the hands of minors.

Altria, in a letter responding to Gottlieb, also said it will limit the flavors used for a different kind of e-cigarette — called “cig-a-likes” — to tobacco, menthol and mint, which are thought to be less appealing to children. It will discontinue the sale of other flavors until it gets approval from the FDA. And it said it will support federal legislation to establish 21 as the minimum age for the purchase of any tobacco product. The current federal minimum age is 18, though some states and cities have set higher ages.

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