Mr. Gottlieb did not detail the preliminary survey information that inspired this regulatory offensive. But The Post’s Laurie McGinley reported that the data show a 75 percent spike in e-cigarette use among high school students — from just a year ago. “E-cigs have become an almost ubiquitous — and dangerous — trend among teens,” Mr. Gottlieb said. “It’s simply not tolerable.”
E-cigarettes vaporize nicotine-laced liquid, delivering a potent nicotine hit to users — in some cases at far higher levels than conventional cigarettes. The devices are nevertheless believed to be substantially less harmful than combustible cigarettes, making them a potential game-changer in helping smokers quit the really bad stuff, which still kills about half a million Americans a year. The FDA hopes that requiring tobacco companies to dramatically cut nicotine in traditional cigarettes will encourage people to, if not quit, at least transition onto e-cigarettes, nicotine gums or patches, lowering their risks of cancer and serious respiratory ailments. That transition could represent one of the largest public-health victories in the history of the FDA.
But it cannot come at the cost of hooking millions of children. Experts are still reviewing the devices’ safety profile. Nicotine harms adolescent brains. E-cigarette liquid might contain chemicals that pose other risks. Some fear that “vaping” might serve as a gateway to using other tobacco products.
So the FDA announced a massive crackdown. The agency sent e-cigarette manufacturers a warning that they must develop plans to combat youth use, or their products could be pulled from the shelves pending regulatory review. In particular, the FDA might curtail specially flavored e-cigarette liquids, which are thought to appeal to teenagers. Companies may have to do more to halt sales to unscrupulous retailers, fight online straw purchases or redesign aspects of their products that seem to appeal to teenagers. Major e-cigarette manufacturers have curtailed marketing seemingly aimed at a younger audience and insist that their products are intended only for adult smokers. But their efforts clearly have not been enough.
Meanwhile, the FDA is also ferreting out retailers who sell vaping products to minors, sending more than 1,100 warning letters to stores caught selling e-cigarettes to minors and levying fines on 131 repeat offenders.
“It’s now clear to me, that in closing the on-ramp to kids, we’re going to have to narrow the off-ramp for adults who want to migrate off combustible tobacco and onto e-cigs,” Mr. Gottlieb said. The challenge from here is to crack down in a way that protects children but also keeps the larger goal — all but eliminating combustible cigarette use — in the realm of possibility.