Oct 13, 2023 - Health

Illegal vapes thwart FDA enforcement

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Illegal flavored e-cigarettes are flooding the U.S. market and circumventing FDA efforts to curb youth vaping.

Why it matters: The situation raises questions about whether the FDA is capable of enforcing new standards in public health — and if some prohibition-based policies lead to unintended consequences.

Driving the news: Seven years after the agency got expanded authority to regulate e-cigarettes, e-cigarettes are arriving from China in Barbiecore colors featuring fruit and ice cream flavors, per the New York Times.

  • They account for a major share of the estimated $5.5 billion e-cigarette market, with some offering 5,000 or more puffs per device or as much nicotine as is found in a carton of cigarettes.
  • The FDA has greenlit only about two dozen of the approximately 2,000 vaping products on the market and still faces a backlog of applications, the Times reports.

Go deeper: Tobacco companies trying to preserve their market share are joining with lawmakers and some states in calling for tougher enforcement.

  • A study of discarded product packages in 10 California cities earlier this year for Altria found nearly all were flavored, despite a 2022 state ban on flavored vapes, menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.
  • More than one-quarter of products found were non-domestic products, which are not intended for the U.S. market.

The FDA has sent warning letters to manufacturers and retailers for marketing unauthorized products and selling to underage buyers.

  • But flavored e-cigarette sales (mint, menthol and other flavors) surged 60.2% from February 2020 through mid-June, per the CDC Foundation.
  • "It's a very complex chess match, not a game of tic-tac-toe," FDA tobacco center chief Brian King told the Times. "And we need to ensure that the actions we take are both scientifically and legally defensible."
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