The Food and Drug Administration announced a set of major new enforcement actions Wednesday aimed at reducing the sales and marketing of electronic cigarettes to teenagers.
Saying vaping among teenagers has reached "an epidemic proportion," the agency said it was taking a "series of critical and historic" measures to curb the alarming trends.
"We must do more to stem what I see as an epidemic of use of e-cigs among teens, and deeply disturbing trends that show no sign of abating," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said. "The FDA won't tolerate a whole generation of young people becoming addicted to nicotine."
The agency issued more than 1,300 warning letters and fines to convenience stores, gas stations and other stores over the summer for selling e-cigarettes to minors, Gottlieb says. The FDA says it's the agency's largest such action in history.
The agency is also giving companies that make the most popular e-cigarettes among teenagers — JUUL, Vuse, Blu, MarkTen XL and Logic — 60 days to prove they can keep the devices away from minors. If the don't, the FDA said it may pull the devices containing flavors that appeal to children from the market.
"Industry must step up to this challenge," Gottlieb says. "They say they've changed from the days of Joe Camel. But look at what's happening right now, on our watch and on their watch. They must demonstrate that they're truly committed to keeping these new products out of the hands of kids and they must find a way to reverse this trend."
The announcement was immediately hailed by anti-tobacco advocates.
"This is potentially the most important step FDA has taken to curtail youth use of e-cigarettes," said an emailed statement from Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Today's announcement will represent a fundamental turning point, if but only if, FDA formally requires all manufactures to comply with these requirements and FDA reverses its policy and requires that all of these products undergo premarket review now, not four years from now."
The companies say they are working with the FDA to prevent young people from using their devices.
"We are committed to preventing underage use of our product, and we want to be part of the solution in keeping e-cigarettes out of the hands of young people," JUUL CEO Kevin Burns said in a statement. "Our mission is to improve the lives of adult smokers by providing them with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes."
The announcement is the latest in a series of steps the FDA has been taking to try to curb vaping among young people. Critics have charged the agency has been working too slowly to regulate the devices.
The FDA says it's trying to balance two goals: Keeping electronic cigarettes available to adults who don't want to start smoking traditional cigarettes or are trying to quit and keeping the e-cigarettes out of the hands of young people.
A report by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that was released in January said that while e-cigarettes aren't free of health risks, they are likely to be less risky than regular cigarettes.
Eaton, a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health, said that "in some circumstances, such as their use by nonsmoking adolescents and young adults, their adverse effects clearly warrant concern. In other cases, such as when adult smokers use them to quit smoking, they offer an opportunity to reduce smoking-related illness."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Food and Drug Administration says it's taking on what it calls an epidemic of e-cigarette use among children and teenagers. The FDA laid out a crackdown on companies that make the devices and stores that sell them.
NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been reporting on this. He's in the studio now. Hey there, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there.
CORNISH: So take us through what the FDA announced today.
STEIN: Yeah, so the FDA announced what it's calling a major escalation of its battle against vaping by kids. You know, the FDA's been going after e-cigarette use among young people for a while now, but it says it's taking that to a whole new level. And specifically the agency announced that it's issuing more than 1,300 warning letters and fines against convenience stores, gas stations and other outlets that the FDA discovered were illegally selling e-cigarettes to kids during an undercover blitz over the summer. And the agency says this is the largest coordinated enforcement action the FDA's ever taken.
CORNISH: So that's the action they took against sellers. What about the companies that make e-cigarettes?
STEIN: Yeah, so the FDA says it's giving five companies that make the most popular forms of cigarettes among kids 60 days to prove that they will keep these things out of the hands of young people. And they're asking the companies to do things like, you know, stop marketing these things to kids and stop supplying stores that are found to be illegally selling them to underage young people and also, you know, stop the online sales of e-cigarettes to kids. And the agency says if these companies don't prove that they're doing this within 60 days, they might pull flavored e-cigarettes off the market. And those are the ones that are thought to appeal most young people.
CORNISH: What prompted all this?
STEIN: So FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb says he's become convinced that e-cigarette use among kids has reached epidemic proportions. And, you know, you've got to remember e-cigarettes - you know, they're thought to be safer than regular cigarettes, but they're not totally safe. They're really potent deliverers of nicotine, which is a highly addictive drug. And so the fear is that these things have become so popular that we might be addicting a whole new generation of kids to nicotine.
CORNISH: Now, what kind of reaction has today's announcement received?
STEIN: Yeah, so the companies that make these products, they say, look; you know, we don't think kids should be using them either. We've been doing everything we can to keep kids from vaping, from using our products. But they say that this move like this could backfire because, you know, adults who are - use e-cigarettes are using them to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes, which are really dangerous. And so if we make them harder to get, that could make it harder for people to kick the habit. And that could, you know, go - cause real problems in the antismoking efforts in this country. And the advocates for these devices also say that look; you know, today tobacco stocks went up, which is a signal that, you know, who's going to benefit from this but the tobacco companies?
CORNISH: You mentioned the antitobacco activists. What about them and public health advocates? How do they see all this?
STEIN: Yeah, so they're happy to see the FDA finally doing something in their minds. But they say, look; this doesn't go nearly far enough. So far, it's a lot of asking companies to do things voluntarily. And they think the only thing that ever really works for these companies is ordering them to do things. And the FDA has a lot of power to order these companies to do things about these devices. They have a lot of new authority. And they could do something like just ban flavorings in e-cigarettes altogether.
CORNISH: And what's the reply from the FDA about that?
STEIN: So the FDA says, look; we're trying to balance two really important things. We don't want kids to be vaping. We know it is dangerous. But on the other hand, we don't want adults to be smoking tobacco cigarettes. And in fact, the FDA's announced a plan to basically slash the amount of nicotine in cigarettes to try to wean more Americans off tobacco cigarettes. And the concern is, you know, if we do that, we have to give them an alternative form of nicotine. And these e-cigarettes could be really important for that. So we have to sort of balance these two competing demands.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Rob Stein. Rob, thank you.
STEIN: Oh, sure, nice to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.