The Trump administration on Wednesday said it planned to halt the sales of flavored e-cigarettes amid a national outbreak of lung illnesses that may be linked to vaping devices.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the Food and Drug Administration will issue a new policy within several weeks that will require all flavored e-cigarettes to come off the market.
Flavored e-cigarette makers will be able to apply to the FDA for sales authorization, but until the FDA approves them, the only products that can be on the market will be e-cigarettes flavored like tobacco.
The announcement came at an Oval Office meeting with President Donald Trump, Azar and acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless. Trump expressed concern about the recent illnesses as well as the appeal of flavored e-cigarettes to young people.
“We can’t allow people to get sick and we can’t let our youth be so affected,” Trump said.
Azar said all e-cigarette manufacturers must submit applications to the FDA by May 2020 if they wish to continue selling their products. While tobacco-flavored products can stay on sale in the meantime and would continue sales during the application process, flavored products won’t get that relief.
“We simply have to remove these attractive flavored products from the marketplace until they secure FDA approval, if they can,” Azar said.
He said if kids continue to use tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes once other flavors are no longer sold, the administration could take further action.
Thursday’s announcement is much more punitive toward the e-cigarette industry than earlier Trump administration plans. While former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb threatened a flavor ban almost exactly a year ago, the FDA stopped short of that.
Instead, it was planning to stop sales of flavored products in locations that are not age-restricted, like gas stations and convenience stores. Those retailers would have been allowed to continue selling tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes, as well as mint and menthol flavors, since traditional cigarettes are still available in that form and the FDA didn’t want to discourage adult smokers from switching to e-cigarettes.
But the administration said in a press release that the preliminary data from a federal survey on youth tobacco use showed a significant increase in past 30-day e-cigarette use compared to 2018, and that “the overwhelming majority” reported the use of fruit flavors, mint and menthol.
In 2019, “more than a quarter” of high schoolers reporting using an e-cigarette in the past month, the press release said, compared to 21 percent last year — which itself was a 75 percent increase over 2017.
The move comes as the FDA has been under intense pressure from Congress to do something about e-cigarette flavors, whose appeal to young people has led to a severe increase in underage use in recent years.
While the action could have a significant impact on the number of young people who try e-cigarettes, it might not address the cause of the mysterious illnesses linked to vaping that have sickened at least 450 people, six of whom have died.
Federal and state health officials are still investigating the cause of the illnesses, and while they have pointed to vaping as a common factor among the cases, many of them have reported vaping THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, as well as nicotine.
Regardless of the cause, e-cigarettes broadly have taken the blame because of their appeal to youth and the fact that some can be modified to use substances other than liquid nicotine, such as marijuana.
Ultimately, neither e-cigarettes nor marijuana are closely regulated at the federal level, and in Congress the popular sentiment is that it is past time to do something about e-cigarette flavors.
In recent days dozens of members, mostly Democrats, have called for a stronger response from the FDA.
Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, or Oregon, who co-led a letter to the FDA earlier Wednesday calling for a flavor moratorium, said in a statement that the administration’s announcement was “outrageously overdue.”
“It’s been clear for years that an epidemic of youth e-cigarette addiction was building,” he said.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, of Utah., earlier Wednesday suggested the FDA recall all e-cigarettes from the market. While Republicans have typically been more sympathetic to the view that e-cigarettes are an important alternative for adults who want to quit smoking traditional cigarettes, Romney sounded a note of skepticism in light of the illnesses.
“I am increasingly concerned that a generation of young people has been deceived into thinking e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to smoking,” he said.