WASHINGTON — U.S. health regulators are moving ahead with a plan designed to keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of teenagers by restricting sales of most flavored products in convenience stores, gas stations, pharmacies and other retail locations.
The new guidelines, first proposed by the Food and Drug Administration in November, are the latest government effort to reverse what health officials call an epidemic of underage vaping.
E-cigarettes typically heat a flavored nicotine solution into an inhalable vapor. Federal law bans their sale to those under 18, but 1 in 5 high school students report using e-cigarettes, according to the latest survey published last year.
Under proposed FDA guidelines released Wednesday, e-cigarette makers would need to restrict sales of most flavored products to stores that verify the age of customers upon entry or include a separate, age-restricted area for vaping products. Companies would also be expected to use third-party, identity-verification technology for online sales.
The FDA will also prioritize removing vaping products that clearly appeal to kids, such as those with packaging that resembles juice boxes, candy or cookies. Companies that don't follow the new requirements risk having their products pulled from the market, the FDA said.
"The onus is now on the companies and the vaping industry to work with us to try and bring down these levels of youth use, which are simply intolerable," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in an interview. The restrictions won't apply to three flavors that the FDA says appeal more to adults than teenagers: tobacco, menthol and mint.
The rise in teen vaping has been driven mainly by new cartridge-based products like Juul, a heavily-marketed brand that has become a scourge in U.S. high schools. The rechargeable, odorless device can be used discreetly in bathrooms, hallways and even classrooms.
The Silicon Valley-based company voluntarily halted retail sales of its fruit and candy-flavored pods last year, ahead of the FDA announcement.
Communities throughout the Akron area have been taking steps to keep tobacco — including e-cigarettes and vaping devices — out of the hands of teens and young adults.
Summit County Council is considering an ordinance that would raise the tobacco-buying age from 18 to 21 in nine Summit County townships: Bath, Boston, Copley, Coventry, Northfield Center, Richfield, Sagamore Hills, Springfield and Twinsburg.
Six municipalities in Summit County — the cities of Akron, Green and Twinsburg and the villages of Mogadore, Norton and Richfield — have approved similar measures under an initiative supported by Summit County Public Health called Tobacco 21. Stow, Hudson and Barberton have rejected the measure.
Juul Labs released a statement last month in support of the Tobacco 21 ordinance.
“We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products, and no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL. We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated,” Ted Kwong with Juul Labs media relations and communications said in an email. “Tobacco 21 laws have been shown to dramatically reduce youth smoking rates, which is why we strongly support raising the minimum purchase age for all tobacco products, including vaping products like JUUL, to 21 in Ohio. Our secure website, JUUL.com, already requires all purchasers to be 21 and over. We look forward to working with policymakers at the federal, state and local levels to achieve Tobacco 21.”
Anti-smoking activists have questioned whether the new FDA restrictions will be enough to stop the teen vaping surge. The FDA has little authority over how stores display and sell vaping products. Instead, critics say the agency is essentially telling companies to self-police.