FDA crackdown on vaping flavors has a blind spot: disposables

Washington • The US government on Thursday began enforcing restrictions on flavored electronic cigarettes aimed at curbing underage vaping. But some teens may be ahead of the rules.

Parents, researchers and students warn that some young people have already switched to a new type of vape that is not covered by the flavor ban.

These disposable electronic cigarettes are sold under brands such as Puff Bar, Stig, and Fogg in flavors such as pink lemonade, blueberry ice cream, and tropical mango.

[Read More: Utah health officials look to ban flavored vape products in grocery, convenience stores]

The Food and Drug Administration crackdown is narrowly targeting reusable vaping devices like Juul, the blockbuster brand that helped spark the teen vaping craze in the U.S. Under the new policy, only menthol and tobacco aromas are authorized for these devices.

Critics of the FDA policy fear that teens will simply turn to the cheaper, disposable products widely available at convenience stores and gas stations.

“They are very accessible and seem to be the hot new product,” said Dr. Karen Wilson, tobacco researcher and pediatrician at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

The FDA has confirmed that the flavor restriction will not apply to “stand-alone disposables,” but only to refillable products that use pods or cartridges pre-filled with a nicotine solution.

The agency’s reasoning: Reusable vaping devices are by far the most popular with underage users, preferred by over 60% of high school students who vape, according to survey data collected last year.

The FDA’s main tobacco regulator has said it can always tackle any vaping product that appeals to teens.

“If we see a product targeted at children, we will take action,” said Mitch Zeller, who heads the agency’s tobacco center, in a statement.

Thursday was the deadline for manufacturers of reusable electronic cigarettes to stop selling fruity and sweet flavors. Juul was already in compliance. It ditched its best-selling mint and most other flavors before the ban was announced in early January and only sells tobacco and menthol.

At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, the director of Fontem US, which makes blu vapes, was in a rush to drop his disposable vanilla and cherry electronic cigarettes.

The chef of Fontem, Antoine Blonde, retorted that his customers are adults and not children. Less than 3% of high school students who vape said blu was their favorite brand, according to government data from 2019.

“We are not aware of any issues caused by our disposable flavors,” said Blonde.

Sales of disposable e-cigarettes and all other tobacco and vaping products are banned for teens under the government’s new age limit, which dropped from 18 to 21 at the end of last year.

High school student Philip Fuhrman says most of his vaping New York classmates ditched Juul for disposables like Stig, a tiny e-cigarette sold in flavors like Mighty Mint and Mango Bomb.

They’re easier to hide because “they’re smaller and when you’re done you can just throw them away,” said Fuhrman, 16, who says no longer vaping. He is now an anti-vaping activist and his mother is one of the founders of a parent group opposed to youth vaping.

At $ 20 for a three-pack, Stig may not seem cheap. But Fuhrman and other teens say it’s a smaller investment than the $ 40 or $ 50 it takes to buy a Juul device and a four-pod pack. Furhman says the teens will instead buy a bundle of Stigs “for the weekend and be done with it.”

Disposable makers Stig, Puff Bar and Fogg did not respond to requests for comment.

Analysts report that disposables still account for just 5% of the global vaping market of nearly $ 15 billion, according to the company ECigIntelligence.

Researchers studying high school e-cigarette waste say they’ve noticed a change in what teens vape. Jeremiah Mock of the University of California at San Francisco has found discarded Puff Bars in local school parking lots in the past three months.

Vaping store owners also say the market is changing.

Since the FDA’s announcement, distributors and manufacturers have increased their disposable offerings, according to Jeremy Gardner, owner of Vapewerks, in Cumberland, Md.

“How do disposables get a free pass when they’re essentially the same as a Juul or whatever comes with a pre-filled pod?” He asked.

Gardner does not stock its most requested brand, Puff Bar, but sells a rival throwaway. Most of its activity comes from larger tank vapors, which are more popular with adults and allow users to customize flavors and nicotine strengths. These products are exempt from government flavor restrictions.

Electronic cigarettes, which heat a solution of nicotine to vapor, are often touted as a less harmful alternative to traditional cigarettes, but the FDA has not approved any vaping products to help smokers quit. Manufacturers of all vaping products face a May deadline to submit government health and safety review requests.

Mike Chang, owner of the Master Piece Smoke Shop in New York City, says most of his customers who buy disposables left Juul after the company pulled its mint, mango and dessert flavors last fall. The company took this voluntary step under the pressure of multiple federal investigations and lawsuits from state and local authorities.

The San Francisco-based company’s retail sales have fallen 35% from their peak last July, due to the loss of flavors, according to Wall Street research firm Piper Sandler. Juul does not sell disposable electronic cigarettes.

In a government survey last year, more than one in four high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the past month. The next federal study begins this spring.

AP video journalist Marshall Ritzel in New York contributed to this report.

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