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The Trump administration takes baby steps on teen vaping

Our view: Food and Drug Administration’s latest call to address teen vaping ‘epidemic’ is a welcome sign of progress

Considering the Trump administration’s fixation on deregulation without regard to the potentially harmful impact of loosened protections on such niceties as clean air, land or water, or even human health, it’s something of a pleasant surprise to find at least one area in which federal authorities are standing up for the public interest and challenging private industry. Last Wednesday’s announcement by the Food and Drug Administration ordering Juul Labs and other makes of e-cigarettes to devise ways to keep their product out of the hands of minors may have been overdue, but it’s welcome nonetheless.

The FDA order gives the handful of manufacturers 60 days to respond. The next step? It could mean forcing the companies to remove flavored e-cigarettes and refills from the market. Officials said there’s also the possibility of criminal charges if teens who “vape” are found to be acquiring their supplies through manufacturer-sponsored websites.

The rising popularity of vaping should be a concern to everyone and not just parents. A recent study estimates U.S. e-cigarette users at 10.8 million, with more than half under the age of 35. While often touted as a way for smokers to break their habits or to reduce their intake of many of the cancer-causing chemicals found in tobacco smoke, research suggests that many e-cigarette users also smoke traditional cigarettes and perhaps have no acquired a dual habit. The health effects of vaping are concerning as well.

But teen e-cigarette use is a clear-cut matter. It’s against the law for anyone under the age of 18 to vape. Yet it still happens with some frequency. And just as troubling, there’s growing evidence it’s getting teens hooked on nicotine who never smoked. And there is no shortage of them. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 16.2 percent of high school seniors say they’ve used an e-cigarette in the past month — which is about 40 percent more than the 11.4 percent of 12th graders who say they’ve smoked. The same survey found two-thirds of teens like their e-cigarettes flavored, and seven out of 10 have been exposed to vaping ads.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that for teens, vaping isn’t the pathway to stopping smoking, it’s the way to start it. Under the circumstances, that makes the rise in e-cigarette use by teens a legitimate “epidemic,” which is exactly how the FDA is describing it. Thankfully.

But will the FDA stick to its guns? Flavored e-cigarettes have become a big part of the $2.3 billion e-cigarette business. Juul Labs has emerged as a dominant provider, selling a device that looks a great deal like a flash drive, upgrading its coolness quotient to tech-savvy youngsters. Will their “plan” be some minor sop to regulators such as warning vendors not to sell to minors or putting warnings on packages or perhaps not advertising on platforms that tend to attract teens? Will the FDA be willing to take stronger action?

There’s evidence it may not. The FDA banned flavorings (other than menthol) from cigarettes nine years ago. Why continue to allow fruity flavors (or crème brûlée, in the case of one Juul “flavor pod”) in e-cigarettes? Last year, the FDA extended the deadline for these same manufacturers to get approval to market new lines of non-combustible tobacco products until 2022. Health advocates argue that if FDA had simply stuck to its original timetable in a process that started back in 2016, Juul and other companies might already be addressing these same concerns.

Banning flavored e-cigarettes might seem heavy-handed considering they now make up a hefty percentage of sales, but it would certainly address the teen vaping problem directly. And the U.S. wouldn’t be the first country to contemplate such an action. Israel banned Juul cigarettes last month on the grounds that its high concentration of nicotine represented a “grave risk to public health.” Other countries, especially in Europe, have simply imposed restrictions such as mandatory childproofing and limits on advertising.

Still, the FDA may yet follow suit — if they are willing to recognize and respect scientific research, which is far from a certainty in this administration. Studies show teens are especially sensitive to nicotine’s addictive and harmful effects. What a calamity it would be if successful public health efforts to ween them from tobacco might be undone by this electronic alternative.

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