The FDA Is Late in Banning E-Cigarettes That Tempt Kids
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Food and Drug Administration needs a wake-up call.
More than 3 million U.S. high-school students and another half a million middle-school students use e-cigarettes, many of which are loaded with so much nicotine they could not be legally sold in Canada, the U.K. or Europe. The addictive nature of these products makes them a menace to students’ health, and it’s clear that kids are being drawn in by a tactic the industry has long used to hook young smokers: sweet, flavored products, including menthol.
Yet the Food and Drug Administration has dragged its feet to get the high-nicotine, flavored — including menthol-flavored — e-cigarettes that have fueled the youth e-cigarette epidemic off the market. The agency recently blew past a court-imposed Sept. 9 deadline to either authorize the sale of the top-selling e-cigarette brands that are driving youth use, or to remove them from store shelves.
The court set the deadline nearly two years ago — more than enough time to reach a conclusion, especially given the overwhelming evidence in favor of action.
The science is clear that e-cigarettes containing large quantities of nicotine — two to three times more than is allowed in Europe — are highly addictive. The long-term health effects remain unknown, but a growing body of evidence raises concern about their impact on cardiovascular health. And although users don’t inhale smoke and tar into their lungs, they are exposed to any number of noxious chemicals and metals.
Keep in mind that almost all smokers begin as adolescents or young adults, and that more than 80% of kids who use e-cigarettes use flavored ones. Rather than help the U.S. tackle its smoking habit, e-cigarettes are making the problem worse.
Each day that these flavored products remain on the market means that more children will develop nicotine addictions — and makes them more likely to become cigarette smokers and suffer from cigarette-related diseases. The FDA’s delay is dangerous, and it should waste no more time rectifying it.
In fairness, the agency did reject many applications from e-cigarette companies that provided no sound scientific evidence that their products help adult smokers quit. These have been ordered off the market. But the FDA has left unaddressed the top-selling youth-oriented brands: Juul, Vuse, blu and NJOY. These constitute more than two-thirds of the e-cigarette market. They remain unauthorized — and are still available.
The FDA promised to prioritize the most popular brands, yet it has done the opposite. That does not inspire public confidence in the agency, and it leaves Americans with questions about the safety of these products, even though we have good answers.
The FDA has sowed similar confusion with Covid-19 vaccines, by not being clear about when it will approve them, including for children, and its process for approving booster shots.
This is partly a result of lack of leadership, including from the White House. Eight months after taking office, President Joe Biden has yet to name a new FDA commissioner. In a year when public health is an extraordinarily high priority, this is inexcusable.
With students now returning to school, it’s a terrible time to leave the most popular flavored e-cigarette brands on the market. With or without a permanent leader, the FDA needs to act immediately to end the sale of high-nicotine, menthol-flavored e-cigarettes.
Too many young lives are at stake to accept any further delay.
Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, and UN Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.