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FDA signals crackdown on flavored cigars to reduce youth tobacco use

Juul Labs stops selling popular flavored e-cigarettes in retail outlets and halts social media promotion in advance of an agency announcement.

The Food and Drug Administration announced Nov. 15 a sweeping move to curb smoking and vaping among minors. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, signaled Tuesday that the agency plans action against flavored cigars — products that are especially popular among African American teens — as part of an aggressive effort to reduce underage vaping and smoking expected to be announced this week.

His comments came on the same day that Juul Labs announced it would stop selling most of its flavored e-cigarette pods — specifically, mango, fruit, creme and cucumber — in 90,000 retail outlets, including convenience stores and vape shops. The company also said it would halt its social media promotions of the products.

The announcement by Juul, which is hugely popular among young people and controls more than 70 percent of the e-cigarette market, occurred as the FDA prepared a major anti-tobacco initiative involving flavored e-cigarettes, traditional menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.

The FDA plan is expected to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most flavored, cartridge-based e-cigarettes to be sold at convenience stores and gas stations. Such products could still be sold at adult-only tobacco and vape shops. Mint and menthol flavors of e-cigarettes would not be affected by the new limits. The plan won’t affect what are known as open-tank systems that use e-liquids and are primarily sold in vape and tobacco shops.

Juul said that the only flavors that it would sell in retail outlets are tobacco, mint and menthol flavors, mirroring the coming FDA restrictions. The other flavors will be sold only on the company’s website for now, according to a blog post by Kevin Burns, Juul’s chief executive officer.

Burns said the site has third-party, age-verification features to prevent sales to anyone younger than 21 and will have added security measures in the near future.

The FDA’s Gottlieb made his comments during an appearance at a Washington Post Live event called “Chasing Cancer." Asked whether his anti-tobacco plan would include flavored cigars, he said, "I think you can expect us to look at pursuing action on that.” The FDA could propose banning most flavored cigars, a longtime goal of tobacco-control advocates.

His remarks indicated that the agency is taking a more expansive approach than many initially thought in trying to reduce tobacco use among minors. He also detailed why the agency will propose a ban on menthol in regular cigarettes — something that the agency has long discussed but never done. Menthol, he said, is a “significant problem” that makes it easier for young people to start smoking and harder to stop. He said that just over half of teenagers use menthol cigarettes when they start smoking but that the proportion is greater than 70 percent for young African Americans.

“I don’t think the tobacco industry should be marketing products that, if not directed at kids, make it exceptionally easy to get kids started on combustible cigarettes,” Gottlieb said. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 banned all flavors in regular cigarettes but menthol, and it directed the FDA to consider the issue.

African American health experts, who have pressed the agency for years to ban menthol in cigarettes, said Tuesday they would welcome any FDA proposal to do so. "I’m sorry it has taken the FDA so long to come around but I’m glad they finally are,” said Phillip Gardiner, co-chairman of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, which works with localities to outlaw menthol cigarettes. “They should have done it 10 years ago and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Juul e-cigarettes, which look like flash drives and can be recharged in computers' USB ports, became a sensation among young people after being introduced in 2015. An early social media campaign that used attractive young models was harshly criticized by public health groups as promoting Juul products to youth.

The company, in its announcement, said it plans to shut down its U.S.-based social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram and to confine its YouTube postings to testimonials from adult smokers who have switched to Juul as a way to give up traditional cigarettes. It said it also has asked social media companies to prohibit the posting of any user-generated posts that promote underage e-cigarette use.

The company also said that in the future, it would restart retail orders for the four popular flavors only if it is legally allowed and retailers have technology that prevents sales to anyone younger than 21 and does not permit bulk sales.

Altria has also said it would stop selling its pod-based e-cigarettes, at least for now.

The FDA has not said when it will release its package of anti-tobacco actions, but many in the public health community are expecting it Thursday, when the American Cancer Society conducts its annual Great American Smokeout to encourage smokers to quit. Federal law bars the sale of tobacco products to anyone younger than 18.

FDA Commissioner talks e-cigarette restrictions (Video: Washington Post Live)

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