The Food and Drug Administration announced a set of major new enforcement actions Wednesday aimed at reducing the sales and marketing of electronic cigarettes to teenagers.
Saying vaping among teenagers has reached "an epidemic proportion," the agency said it was taking a "series of critical and historic" measures to curb the alarming trends.
"We must do more to stem what I see as an epidemic of use of e-cigs among teens, and deeply disturbing trends that show no sign of abating," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said. "The FDA won't tolerate a whole generation of young people becoming addicted to nicotine."
The agency issued more than 1,300 warning letters and fines to convenience stores, gas stations and other stores over the summer for selling e-cigarettes to minors, Gottlieb says. The FDA says it's the agency's largest such action in history.
The agency is also giving companies that make the most popular e-cigarettes among teenagers — JUUL, Vuse, Blu, MarkTen XL and Logic — 60 days to prove they can keep the devices away from minors. If the don't, the FDA said it may pull the devices containing flavors that appeal to children from the market.
"Industry must step up to this challenge," Gottlieb says. "They say they've changed from the days of Joe Camel. But look at what's happening right now, on our watch and on their watch. They must demonstrate that they're truly committed to keeping these new products out of the hands of kids and they must find a way to reverse this trend."
The announcement was immediately hailed by anti-tobacco advocates.
"This is potentially the most important step FDA has taken to curtail youth use of e-cigarettes," said an emailed statement from Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Today's announcement will represent a fundamental turning point, if but only if, FDA formally requires all manufactures to comply with these requirements and FDA reverses its policy and requires that all of these products undergo premarket review now, not four years from now."
The companies say they are working with the FDA to prevent young people from using their devices.
"We are committed to preventing underage use of our product, and we want to be part of the solution in keeping e-cigarettes out of the hands of young people," JUUL CEO Kevin Burns said in a statement. "Our mission is to improve the lives of adult smokers by providing them with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes."
The announcement is the latest in a series of steps the FDA has been taking to try to curb vaping among young people. Critics have charged the agency has been working too slowly to regulate the devices.
The FDA says it's trying to balance two goals: Keeping electronic cigarettes available to adults who don't want to start smoking traditional cigarettes or are trying to quit and keeping the e-cigarettes out of the hands of young people.
A report by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that was released in January said that while e-cigarettes aren't free of health risks, they are likely to be less risky than regular cigarettes.
Still, David Eaton, who headed the committee that wrote the report, told NPR "there is conclusive evidence that most products emit a variety of potentially toxic substances."
Eaton, a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health, said that "in some circumstances, such as their use by nonsmoking adolescents and young adults, their adverse effects clearly warrant concern. In other cases, such as when adult smokers use them to quit smoking, they offer an opportunity to reduce smoking-related illness."