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Opinion Perhaps the FDA could have waited on vaping, but it was right to act

Vaping devices, including a Juul, center, that were confiscated from students at a high school in Marshfield, Mass., in 2018. (Steven Senne/AP)

An earlier version of this editorial mistakenly reported on when flavored e-cigarette manufacturers could apply to regain access to the U.S. market. They can currently apply to regain access. This version has been updated.

EVER SINCE e-cigarettes began surging in popularity, they have posed a vexing problem: These nicotine-delivery devices may help some adults quit smoking, which is more dangerous than vaping, but also may addict nonsmokers to nicotine, especially curious teenagers. The Trump administration took a major step on Wednesday to reduce the appeal to young nonsmokers. The hope is that the move will not also lead fewer adult smokers to quit.

Flanked by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and first lady Melania Trump, President Trump announced that the Food and Drug Administration would ban flavored e-cigarette products from the market — except those that taste like tobacco smoke. Research backs the common-sense assumption that differently flavored vaping fluids — mango, mint, cotton candy — appeal to high schoolers unused to tobacco’s harsh taste. Current smokers seeking alternatives, meanwhile, would still have vaping liquids in a taste to which they have become accustomed.

The move is an implicit admission that the FDA’s efforts to date have not done enough to arrest youth vaping. Last November, regulators introduced seemingly strict new rules on the sale of flavored e-liquids; they could be sold only in special, age-controlled shops or on websites with careful age verification. But disheartening new federal data show that youth vaping remains an enormous problem. Initial information from the National Youth Tobacco Survey shows that more than a quarter of high schoolers report having used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days — mostly fruit- or mint-flavored.

The FDA might have given its previous rules more time to play out. But based on the alarming survey, the agency was right to act. The priority must be to prevent a new generation of nicotine addicts. Even if vaping is less dangerous than smoking combustible cigarettes, nicotine itself affects adolescent brain development. The health effects of vaping also remain uncertain — a fact underscored by a spate of recent illnesses and deaths apparently related to e-cigarette use.

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But e-cigarettes do appear to have substantial appeal to smokers seeking alternatives. A study published in January found that smokers who were given e-cigarettes were more likely to successfully stop smoking combustible cigarettes than those given nicotine patches or gums. Drug-based smoking-cessation products are also an effective option, but there is no doubt a class of people for whom vaping is the best off-ramp. And some of them might be less interested without a variety of flavor options.

This might not be the end of the road for flavored e-cigarette products. Manufacturers can apply to regain access to the U.S. market; they would have to convince the FDA that their products protect public health. This means FDA regulators must still consider whether there is a way to market flavored e-liquids exclusively to those who should have access to them. In the meantime, they should move forward with banning flavored cigars, too.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The FDA’s new tobacco rules are a victory for public health

Christine Emba: American children are under attack — but not from flavored vapes

Robert Gebelhoff: The e-cigarette hysteria is getting out of hand

The Post’s View: Everyone should be alarmed by the vaping crisis

David Von Drehle: Vaping finally has its ‘Joe Camel’ moment