The action is a step back from the comprehensive flavor ban that President Trump announced in September to combat what has been described as an epidemic of underage vaping. At that point, he said, the Food and Drug Administration would bar the sale of all flavored e-cigarettes, except for tobacco flavors. The prohibition would have applied to pod-based systems popularized by Juul Labs and others, as well as open-tank systems commonly sold in vape shops.
The official described the action as a compromise between those in the administration who have been pushing for a comprehensive flavor ban to stem the surge in youth vaping, and others — including Trump campaign officials — who have warned the White House about the potential political impact of job losses in vape shops caused by a sweeping crackdown.
The official also said the recent raising of the legal age for buying tobacco products to 21 — a measure included in a year-end spending bill — reassured some in the administration that a more limited ban could still be effective in combating youth use.
Companies such as Juul, Njoy and others sell e-cigarettes that use disposable, pre-filled pods. Many are sold in convenience stores, though Juul has stopped selling its flavored pods except for menthol and tobacco. The kind of products sold in vape shops typically use liquids that can be refilled and mixed by customers to their specific tastes.
The administration’s plans were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The news of the planned ban drew sharp criticism from Matthew Myers, head of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The policy “breaks the administration’s promise to kids and families to eliminate the flavored e-cigarettes that are driving an epidemic of youth nicotine addiction,” he said in a statement. “By leaving menthol flavored e-cigarettes widely available and totally exempting liquid flavored products, this policy will not stop the youth e-cigarette epidemic.”
Myers also said that the latest data suggests that open-tank systems — the kind being exempted by the administration — are becoming increasingly popular with young people.
Paul Blair, director of strategic initiatives at Americans for Tax Reform — a group that has argued strenuously against a flavor ban — said the administration “clearly heard the concern of vapers and looked at the data on teen use.” But, he said, “many adults use pod systems for flavors, so this isn’t a total victory.”
He and others also said that, at least in the pod-based market, the decision will benefit Juul because it will force competitors to halt sales of most flavored pods, which Juul has already done.
Juul, which has dominated the e-cigarette market and has been blamed by some for igniting the surge in youth vaping a few years ago, did not comment on the administration’s decision. In the past, Juul has denied marketing to teens.
The administration’s latest plan caps months of zigzagging on the politically charged issue of youth vaping. The issue took on increased importance in early fall, after the emergence of a mysterious vaping-related illness and the release of new data showing that youth vaping was rising sharply. Administration health officials later said that contaminated THC vapes — not nicotine e-cigarettes — were responsible for dozens of deaths and thousands of illnesses.
The youth tobacco data released in September showed that almost 28 percent of high school students had vaped in the previous 30 days in 2019. In announcing its comprehensive ban, the administration said it would clear the market of most flavored e-cigarettes. But the ensuing political pushback from vape shops — echoed by Trump’s top campaign officials — prompted him to back away from the plan in November. Several weeks ago, in a White House meeting with vaping advocates, health groups and tobacco company executives, he expressed concerns that a ban could lead to an increase in counterfeiting.
By targeting the pod systems, the administration hopes to avoid angering vape shop owners and their loyal customers, who argue that they need liquid flavors to stop smoking. But public health groups say teens will switch to menthol-flavored pods as long as they are on the market. Administration officials in the past have noted that data shows young people prefer other flavors to menthol.
Manufacturers of all types of vaping products must submit product applications to the FDA by May. Those that don’t submit applications could be forced off the market. The FDA will review the applications and authorize the sale of products that show a net benefit to public health, the agency has said.