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FDA unveils sweeping anti-tobacco effort, attacking flavored e-cigarettes and menthol tobacco products

Rules meant to crack down on youth smoking and vaping

Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, announced efforts Thursday to reduce the underage use of e-cigarettes and flavored cigars. (Astrid Riecken/Washington Post)
Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, announced efforts Thursday to reduce the underage use of e-cigarettes and flavored cigars. (Astrid Riecken/Washington Post)

WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration launched a multipronged attack Thursday on the rising underage use of tobacco products, imposing restrictions on flavored e-cigarettes and announcing plans to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.

The FDA says it will limit sales of many flavored e-cigarettes to only bricks-and-mortar outlets that have either age-restricted entry or areas inside stores that are not accessible to people under 18. The agency also will require stepped-up age verification for online sales.

“Our aim is to make sure no kid can access a fruity flavor product in a convenience store,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said. He added that stores that want to sell fruit-flavored e-cigarette products “need to age-restrict completely or have a separate room that is age-verified. A curtain or a partition won’t cut it.”

The sales restrictions reflect health experts’ concerns that e-cigarette use could lead to nicotine addiction early in life and affect the developing brain, and that some e-cigarette users will go on to smoke more dangerous regular cigarettes.

More significant than the e-cigarette steps are the FDA’s commitments to propose bans on menthol in cigarettes and cigars, as well as other flavors in cigars.

Such prohibitions will require new regulations that could take years to go into effect and could be derailed by opposition from the cigarette industry. If successful, though, the bans could have an especially large impact on African-American adults and youth, who smoke menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars at higher rates than other groups.

The regulatory blueprint was released by Gottlieb as the government published new data showing a surge in e-cigarette use among minors.

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“The bottom line is this: I will not allow a generation of children to become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes,” Gottlieb said,

The 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey, by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that vaping had increased 78 percent among high school students since last year and almost 48 percent among middle schoolers; 3.6 million youngsters reported vaping at least once in the previous 30 days.

About 9 percent of Iowa high school students used e-cigarettes and about 7 percent smoked cigars on at least one day in the past 30 days in 2017 figures, according to the Truth Initiative formed in the landmark 1998 tobacco settlement. Both percentages were below the national average.

However, researchers also found that 6.2 percent of Iowa high schoolers used smokeless tobacco, higher than the national average.

The FDA’s moves on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars drew widespread praise. But its actions on e-cigarettes were more controversial.

Public health experts and Democratic lawmakers lauded the vaping moves as a first step but said they didn’t go far enough. For example, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said the agency was finally “moving in the right direction” on e-cigarettes but called on Gottlieb to immediately ban all kid-friendly flavors.

The sales restriction does not ban mint, menthol and tobacco flavored e-cigarette products.

But Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. — endorsing the view of many vaping advocates — said the FDA effort could hurt adult smokers who use e-cigarettes to try to quit regular cigarettes.

Lyle Beckwith, senior vice president of NACS, which represents convenience stores, said his group would review the proposal but that “sound regulation should ensure that e-cigarettes are sold responsibly and that the market is a level playing field.” However, he said a ban on menthol cigarettes would shift sales to the black market.

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The 2009 tobacco-control act banned all flavors in traditional cigarettes except menthol; the law left it to the FDA.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, which makes the nation’s best-selling menthol cigarette, Newport, said research does not support differing regulations and hinted at the possibility of a lawsuit

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