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Opinion The FDA should let e-cigarettes help adults — but not hook kids

A man smokes an e-cigarette.
A man smokes an e-cigarette. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

ABOUT A decade ago, the e-cigarette industry began to boom in the United States, largely unregulated. Vaping was much safer than conventional smoking, and the devices helped some longtime smokers to moderate their highly deadly habit, but e-cigarettes also addicted a generation of new nicotine users. Now, finally, the Food and Drug Administration is stepping in more forcefully to encourage the positive effects of e-cigarettes and discourage the drawbacks.

The FDA announced late last month that it was conducting a month-long crackdown on shops that sell e-cigarette products to minors. Federal authorities worked with local health officials who employed underage decoys to buy vaporizers and nicotine-laced fluids from gas stations, markets and smoke shops. The FDA cited at least 40 retailers in its blitz. It also demanded that Juul, the dominant e- ­cigarette maker, turn over documents on health effects, marketing and research with a focus on children’s use of the product.

The focus on Juul makes sense, as its devices are worryingly popular with teenagers. They resemble USB data sticks, convey a strong nicotine hit and emit relatively little second-hand vapor. Children can carry them in their backpacks and smoke them in school undetected. Flavors include mango and fruit medley. The company insists that its products are only for adult smokers seeking a safer alternative. But it should be only the first to undergo stricter FDA scrutiny.

The agency followed up these announcements by revealing that it sent 13 warning letters to other e-cigarette companies that sell products obviously designed to attract children. The “One Mad Hit Juice Box,” for example, looks like an apple juice carton. “Twirly Pop” included an actual lollipop. One company owner told the New York Times that he did not want to hook kids, just appeal to adult nostalgia. But if addictive adult products are marketed like playground snacks, the result is the same.

Anti-smoking advocates welcomed the FDA’s sudden regulatory offensive. But they warned that it is not enough. The agency announced last August it would delay landmark rules on e-cigarette products on the market up to that point. The advocates also worry the agency is failing to subject new products to required pre-market reviews, in effect waiting to react until problems present themselves rather than proactively preventing them.

The sooner the FDA’s rules are clear and in full force, the better. The agency’s overarching anti- ­tobacco strategy is to reduce the amount of nicotine in combustible cigarettes to minimal or non- ­addictive levels. Once that happens, smokers in search of a more potent nicotine hit will look for alternatives. The FDA should view e-cigarettes as a viable substitute, which will require federal authorities to allow innovation in vaping products for adults. But that cannot come at the cost of hooking more teenagers for life, even on relatively less- ­dangerous e-cigarettes. The agency’s latest moves indicate the FDA will use its regulatory powers more assertively than in the past. It should.

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