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Flavored e-cigarette pod ban starts Thursday: What it means for vapers, kids and parents

Sales of fruit-, dessert- and mint-flavored vape pods are barred. Menthol and tobacco flavors are exempt, as are other kinds of vaping products.

The Trump administration's ban on some flavored pod-based e-cigarettes goes into effect on Feb. 6. Juul will not be affected because it has already suspended sales of sweet, fruity and mint flavors. Menthol and tobacco flavors, which the company is still selling, are not covered by the ban. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The hotly debated Trump administration partial ban on flavored e-cigarettes takes effect Thursday. Which vaping products will be affected? Which will still be available? And what happens next in the administration’s efforts to reduce teen vaping? Here are some answers:

What is happening this week?

The partial vape ban will affect most e-cigarettes that use pre-filled pods. These cartridges are designed for one-time use and have been embraced by teens. Sales of fruit-, dessert- and mint- flavored pods will be outlawed; menthol and tobacco flavors will escape prohibition. The pod-based products, which were popularized by Juul Labs, have been widely available in convenience stores and in some vape shops as well.

The goal of the restrictions is to reduce youth vaping, which health officials say has reached epidemic levels. Federal data released last fall showed that almost 28 percent of high school students had vaped in the previous 30 days, up from less than 12 percent in 2017. The White House initially indicated it would ban even more products, but backed off amid objections from the vaping industry.

What are some of the brands affected?

The e-cigarette market leader, Juul Labs, will not be affected by Thursday’s action because it has already stopped selling flavored pods except for menthol and tobacco. Other companies that sell cartridge-based products are NJOY; R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co., which sells Vuse; Fontem Ventures, which sells Blu; and Japan Tobacco International, which sells Logic.

The prohibited products won’t be allowed to return to the market until or unless they get clearance from the Food and Drug Administration. That agency review process could take months or years.

At a House hearing Wednesday, Democrats castigated the heads of major e-cigarette makers for the surge in teen use, while saying the new ban is inadequate. “The industry caused this mess and the industry needs to be responsible for cleaning it up,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), chairwoman of the House Energy Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, to the heads of Juul Labs, NJOY, Reynolds American and others. The corporate chieftains variously pointed fingers at one another, said their companies were trying to do better and defended their products as helpful to adult smokers who wanted to quit.

Which products are excluded from the ban?

Open-tank systems and thousands of flavored e-liquids not in pod form — products commonly found in vape shops and in some convenience stores — are not covered by the ban. Also exempted are disposable e-cigarettes, including a brand called Puff Bar that comes in flavors such as strawberry, cool mint and mango and is becoming increasingly popular among young people, according to public health groups.

Because of those exemptions, “I think it’s a joke to call it a vaping ban at all,” said Erika Sward, a spokeswoman for the American Lung Association.

Health advocates say teens who can no longer buy banned pods will simply switch to products still on the market. “I expect to see the shelves filled with many products that have been exempted,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. His organization and other health groups are backing House legislation that would ban all flavored e-cigarettes, as well as flavored cigars and menthol cigarettes. They are also pushing for state bans.

Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said he understands the concerns of the health groups but noted the policy specifically says the FDA will target any products, no matter what kind, that are marketed to minors or sold in ways that don’t restrict youth access. He and his boss, the new FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, also say the agency will take additional steps if there are signs teens are moving to other products, such as menthol-flavored vaping pods.

Will the banned cartridge-based products suddenly disappear or will they be available in some stores and on some websites?

There are tens of thousands of conveniences stores across the United States, so it’s unlikely there will be total compliance immediately. Industry observers expect the big e-cigarette manufacturers and national retailers to take steps quickly to comply with the ban. But there are lots of other retail outlets, including mom-and-pop corner stores, that might not halt sales immediately or even know about the deadline.

A big question is how aggressively the FDA will enforce the ban in the weeks and months after it goes into effect. Zeller said the agency has an enforcement plan and will begin implementing it Thursday. He declined to provide details, but said the FDA would closely monitor the marketplace and is open to receiving information from anyone “about something going on in the marketplace that shouldn’t be.” He said the FDA investigates all the tips it gets — and the reports come from a variety of sources, including business competitors.

What happens next?

In many ways, the ban will be overtaken by another major milestone that occurs May 12. That’s the deadline for manufacturers of all vaping products — including products exempt from the Thursday ban — to submit their applications to the FDA for sales authorization. Until now, the FDA has allowed sales of vaping products under “enforcement discretion.” The products technically were illegal because they weren’t approved by the agency.

If a manufacturer files an application by May 12, its product can remain on the market for a year while the FDA reviews it. If it doesn’t file, the item must come off the market by May 12.

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