The FDA Is Too Soft on E-Cigarettes

(The Bloomberg View) -- The commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration insists that he is determined to keep electronic cigarettes away from children. “We won’t let this pool of kids, a pool of future potential smokers, of future disease and death, to continue to build,” Scott Gottlieb said this week, in response to news that the number of high-school and middle-school kids who vape is up 1.5 million since last year. “We’ll take whatever action is necessary to stop these trends from continuing.”

Yet the steps the FDA is taking are not enough. It plans to ban the sale of candy-flavored e-cigarettes in stores (or parts of stores) that are not “age-restricted” —  but that’s an ill-defined distinction that would be hard to enforce, so sales could continue in many convenience stores. Online sales would still be permitted. And there’d be no restriction on where menthol- and mint-flavored e-cigarettes can be sold.

Teenage vapers are already acquiring a taste for those options, fresh data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey show. They’ll continue to be at risk of becoming addicted to nicotine and going on to smoke combustible cigarettes, like so many others before them.

The agency will also try to tighten standards for verifying that online e-cigarette buyers are at least 18 years old. This is unlikely to keep bubblegum-, chocolate- and fruit-flavored vapes out of the hands of teenagers.

What’s needed is a nationwide ban on selling all flavored e-cigarettes. San Francisco has imposed such a ban within its city limits. More important, such a ban should be part of comprehensive regulation of e-cigarettes. Until e-cigarettes are restricted in the same way as combustible cigarettes — including restrictions on advertising — they will continue to be a danger to American youth and adults.

The FDA has allowed e-cigarettes to remain mostly unregulated, and has given manufacturers until 2022 to even apply for approval, because it believes they may be a safer alternative for hardened smokers of ordinary cigarettes. But this is unclear. The FDA hasn’t required manufacturers to provide evidence that any of these products actually help smokers quit, and hasn’t examined e-cigarettes’ effects on health.

The limited ban on selling candy-flavored vapes in convenience stores and gas stations may make it a bit harder for teenagers to buy them. That’s no substitute for comprehensive and effective regulation.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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