- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday it plans to ban flavored cigars and menthol cigarettes, and restrict the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, saying the U.S. must reverse a ballooning “epidemic” of teen use.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb proposed limiting the sale of e-cigs in flavors like cherry, vanilla and melon to retail areas that don’t let minors in the door, meaning vape shops would be OK but convenience stores would not. Online retailers will have to beef up their age-verification requirements.

“Almost all adult smokers started smoking when they were kids,” Dr. Gottlieb said. “The bottom line is this: I will not allow a generation of children to become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes.”

The FDA’s policy guidance, which will be issued in coming months, will not apply to e-cigs in tobacco, mint and menthol flavors, which are more popular with adults.

However, Dr. Gottlieb is seeking to ban flavored cigars and combustible cigarettes with menthol flavoring that masks some of the nastier aspects of smoking, citing data that show youth tend to use those products at higher rates than adults. The rule-making process to enact that ban could take more than a year.

The FDA had teased its crackdown for months, saying e-cigarette use among minors had risen astronomically even as U.S. smoking rates had declined steadily. Though the battery-powered products that heat liquid are considered safer than combustible cigarettes, they still contain nicotine, prompting fears that young users will get hooked and take up regular cigarettes.

E-cigarette use among high school students rose a whopping 78 percent from 2017 to 2018 and by 48 percent among middle school students, according to federal data released Thursday. All told, 3.6 million students said they were vaping this year.

“These data shock my conscience,” Dr. Gottlieb said. “These increases must stop.”

The commissioner has pointed to e-cigs as a useful conduit for adult smokers who are trying to quit smoking combustible cigarettes. The regulatory crackdown also is an unusual move for a Republican administration that has prided itself on cutting red tape.

Dr. Gottlieb said those factors “cannot and will not” come at the expense of addicting a new generation to nicotine through e-cigarettes.

“This simply will not happen,” he said. “I will take whatever steps I must to prevent this.”

The moves are the latest front in the federal government’s long-running war on smoking, which is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. and is responsible for 480,000 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly a decade ago, President Obama signed major legislation that granted the FDA authority to regulate the manufacture, marketing and sale of tobacco products, while banning candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes that were seen as attractive to kids. Menthol cigarettes, which have been particularly popular in the black community, weren’t included in that ban, and the vaping market hadn’t taken off.

Dr. Gottlieb said the government couldn’t sit on its hands any longer. He said, moving forward, retail establishments will be required to sell e-cigarettes in a separate structure that’s not accessible to minors.

“A curtain is not going to cut it,” he said.

His proposals got mixed reviews.

FreedomWorks, a conservative lobbying group, said Dr. Gottlieb was acting as “nanny-stater in chief” and should rely on local police to thwart illegal sales to youth, as they already do with tobacco products and alcohol.

“This is an enforcement issue. You don’t need to ostensibly shut down an entire industry over this,” said Jason Pye, the group’s vice president of legislative affairs.

GOP Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina — a tobacco-producing state — criticized the Trump administration’s decision to go after “American-made” menthol cigarettes instead of focusing on states that have flouted federal law by legalizing recreational marijuana.

The American Medical Association of Pediatrics, meanwhile, said the moves didn’t go far enough, saying teens will still find ways to get their hands on flavored e-cigs despite new restrictions.

“E-cigarette products that appeal to children have no business in the marketplace, period. FDA must take stronger action to protect young people,” said academy President Colleen A. Kraft.

The American Medical Association and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, also called for an outright ban on flavored e-cigs.

Tobacco and vaping companies are hoping to preempt even stricter measures by voluntarily taking steps to direct their products toward adults exclusively.

Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, said it supports raising the legal age for purchasing tobacco products to 21, though it said a total ban on menthol cigarettes was “an extreme measure not supported by the science.”

Earlier this week Juul, a leading e-cigarette maker, closed social media accounts that are popular with teens and yanked vaping “pods” with sweeter flavors from store shelves, while beefing up age-verification requirements online. It left e-cigarettes with mint and tobacco flavors on shelves, which is in line with policy the FDA is pursuing.

Dr. Gottlieb said even though he wasn’t targeting mint and menthol e-cigs, he is still worried about those flavors.

“If evidence shows that kids’ use of mint or menthol e-cigarettes isn’t declining,” he said, “I’ll revisit this aspect of the current compliance policy.”

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