HARTFORD, CT – The Food and Drug Administration’s announcement Thursday that it will ban fruit, candy, mint, and dessert flavors from small, cartridge-based e-cigarettes doesn’t go far enough according to health and policy experts.
That’s because there are too many exceptions.
The FDA guidelines will allow “vape shops” that sell open-tank systems to continue to sell candy, mint, and fruity flavors that have hooked a new generation of tobacco users. Convenience stores and gas stations that largely sell small, cartridge-based e-cigarettes will only be allowed to tell tobacco and menthol flavors, not the fruity flavors preferred by teens.
However, the federal guidance does not pre-empt states from regulating the sale of flavored tobacco products.
Amber Herting, a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, said the partial federal ban should be strengthened by Connecticut lawmakers.
“In the upcoming legislative session, Connecticut lawmakers have the opportunity to address not only flavored tobacco products, but also the state’s woefully underfunded tobacco control program,” Herting said Thursday.
She added: “Nearly 15% of Connecticut high schoolers use e-cigarettes, and this number continues to grow. We know that youth e-cigarette users are more likely than their counterparts to begin using traditional cigarettes – which sets them at risk for a lifetime of tobacco-related diseases, including cancer.”
She said the Connecticut General Assembly can make up for the “shortcomings” in the FDA guidance.
During the last General Assembly session, Connecticut legislators passed a ban on the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21. Over the last several years, 18 states have adopted laws raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21.
The state Department of Public Health is also pushing for a ban on flavored vape products as one of its legislative initiatives for the upcoming legislative session.
Even with its exemptions, the FDA’s new policy is the boldest step toward curbing teen vaping.
The 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey indicates that use of e-cigarettes in high schools skyrocketed, with a 135% increase over the past two years. Survey results also show that 27.5% of high school students used e-cigarettes in the last 30 days. Nearly 64% used mint or menthol flavored e-cigarettes, only 2% less than fruit-flavored products, and significantly more than candy flavors.
The Trump administration said in September that it would impose a far more aggressive restriction, but officials retreated from that statement based on concerns about shuttering small businesses and data showing an all-out ban would hurt Trump’s re-election chances.
“The FDA’s decision to abandon its announced plan to clear the marketplace of all flavored e-cigarettes, including menthol, is unconscionable,” said Gary Reedy, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society and American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN).
“Instead of moving forward with an effective proposal that could have a meaningful effect in curbing the youth e-cigarette epidemic, we once again have a hollowed-out policy that will allow the tobacco industry to continue to attract kids to a lifetime of nicotine addiction,” Reedy said.
Reedy said the FDA guidance “is yet another giveaway to the industry, which will continue to have unfettered access to market its addictive products at the expense of public health.”
Trump touted the initiative.
“We have to protect our families,” Trump said ahead of a New Year’s Eve celebration in Palm Beach, Florida earlier this week. “At the same time, it’s a big industry. We want to protect the industry.”
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar said in a phone call with reporters Thursday that Trump understood vaping was a “highly complex issue that requires a balanced approach.” He called the regulations a “smart, targeted policy that protects our kids without causing unnecessary disruption.”
Trump referred to the FDA review process when addressing the issue this week, though he also tied the issue to the separate problem of the serious lung illness outbreak that has killed 55 people and hospitalized 2,561.
“People have died from this. They’ve died from vaping,” he said. “We think we understand why. But we’re doing a very exhaustive examination, and hopefully, everything will be back on the market very, very shortly.”
Despite Thursday’s announcement, e-cigarette companies still face a court-ordered deadline of May 2020 to submit their products to the FDA for review. No e-cigarette has won FDA approval. E-cigarette companies say that the review process is far more burdensome on small vaping companies, who are up against massive, traditional cigarette manufacturers that are trying to break into the vaping market.
They have warned that the only company that stands to gain from leaving menthol on the market is Juul Labs, which counts cigarette giant Altria among its investors. Juul voluntarily stopped selling other flavors besides tobacco and menthol.
In the call with reporters Thursday, officials promised to monitor changes in e-cigarette use – particularly to see whether teenagers switch to menthol – and to make other changes if necessary. Azar said the administration had modified its initial position after seeing data that showed teenagers vaped mint but rarely used menthol, and that teenagers also rarely used the open-tank devices.
That wasn’t enough for Reedy.
“The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network urges the Department of Health and Human Services, in coordination with the FDA, to reconsider its finalized guidance and instead enact a comprehensive policy that will protect our children from the profit-driven tobacco industry by removing all flavored e-cigarettes from the market in order to improve the health of the nation,” Reedy said.
Reedy added: “ACS CAN also calls on Congress to resist influence from the tobacco industry and prohibit all flavors in all tobacco products. ACS CAN will continue to advocate at the federal, state and local level, with a presence in all 50 states, to advance and implement effective tobacco control policies that make up for the shortcomings of this guidance.”