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Opinion The FDA’s new tobacco rules are a victory for public health

Christopher Chin blows vapor from an e-cigarette at Gone With the Smoke Vapor Lounge in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

THE FOOD and Drug Administration’s sweeping new tobacco rules did not quite satisfy public-health activists seeking more stringent rules, nor industry-sympathetic conservatives who see them as a “heavy-handed regulatory plan.” In fact, the rules represent an extraordinary step in the fight against nicotine addiction, one that, if successful, would become one of the nation’s greatest public-health victories.

Declaring, “I will not allow a generation of children to become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced that most flavored e-cigarette liquids would be banned from stores unless they have stringent age-verification measures in place. Fruity and creamy flavors that appeal to children will disappear from open convenience store shelves. Users will have to enter specialized vaping shops or tobacco stores to get flavors other than mint, menthol and tobacco. Other stores can sell additional flavors but only if they have separate, ­age-controlled rooms dedicated to their sale. Web sales, too, will require more extensive age-checking measures.

These measures come in response to a shocking spike in youth e-cigarette use, up 78 percent among high schoolers since last year. The chief culprit is the Juul, the dominant vaping device on the market. The device resembles a USB flash drive and allows users to expel secondhand vapor that disappears immediately, making them difficult for parents and teachers to recognize.

Some public-health advocates worry that the FDA’s proposed response is too weak, seeking a more extensive ban on vaping flavors. Indeed, the FDA will have to watch the effectiveness of the separate-room policy. But the FDA must walk a fine line between restricting sales from minors and discouraging adult smokers from transitioning off traditional cigarettes onto e-cigarettes, which are not risk-free but are certainly lower-risk than combustible tobacco. It makes sense to keep flavors such as menthol and tobacco more readily accessible, given that these appeal to current cigarette smokers used to these tastes.

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In fact, if the FDA succeeds, e-cigarettes would be the only medium through which nicotine addicts could get their hit with a menthol taste. The agency also proposed banning menthol in cigarettes, the last flavor allowed in cigarettes, and all flavors in cigars, which have been sold under looser regulations. Years in coming, this change might help push smokers onto safer e-cigarettes; reduce the number of new smokers, because the menthol cuts cigarettes’ harsh tobacco taste; and have particularly large effects on African American tobacco users, who smoke menthols at higher rates than other groups. Tobacco companies will almost certainly sue, delaying the menthol ban’s implementation. But the FDA should have taken this step eight years ago. It is past time to start the regulatory ball rolling.

Mr. Gottlieb has already proved himself one of the most competent and reality-based administrators in the Trump administration. He should not be an exception from the norm. But we are glad he is.

Read more:

Tom Miller: Let’s not overreact about e-cigarettes

Alex M. Azar and Scott Gottlieb: We cannot let e-cigarettes become an on-ramp for teenage addiction

The Post’s View: The FDA is cracking down on e-cigarettes. This is what responsive policymaking looks like.

The Post’s View: The FDA should let e-cigarettes help adults — but not hook kids

Sally Satel: How e-cigarettes could save lives