On Wednesday, Food and Drug Administration will take another proper and solid step to crack down on tobacco products aimed at young people. That’s when the FDA will take public comment on its plan to restrict flavored e-cigarettes and ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. The hearing will be the next step in a long process that’s the most significant move the agency has made to rein in the tobacco industry in about a decade.
Recent data show that youth e-cigarette use has spiked, going up by 78 percent among high schoolers from 2017 to 2018, prompting FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to declare youth vaping an epidemic. Although e-cigarettes could potentially function as a way to wean smokers off of conventional cigarettes, that use should not come at the expense of more children latching onto the vaping trend. E-cigarettes can still be laden with nicotine, a harmful chemical especially for brain development in adolescents.
The move to ban menthol cigarettes, if it makes it through a drawn-out regulatory process, is an important, long-awaited step. Research has shown that menthol cigarettes makes it easier to begin smoking and more difficult to quit, and that companies target low-income African-American neighborhoods for these products, according to the New York Times.
Pressure from the FDA on the tobacco industry over recent months has already wrought some positive changes. The Food and Drug Administration threatened a crackdown back in April on the electronic cigarette industry, revealing it had begun an undercover investigation of retailers who might be selling vaping devices to people under 21. The agency also asked dominant flavored e-cigarette company Juul to turn over documents related to marketing and research, as part of an investigation into whether the company intentionally marketed its products to young people. In response, Juul announced it would spend $30 million to fight underage vaping, and the company announced it would suspend sales of most of its flavored e-cigarette pods and cease its social media promotions.
Some public health advocates, however, say the new restrictions are too lax. For example, FDA Commissioner Gottlieb said stores that want to sell flavored e-cigarette products “need to age-restrict completely or have a separate room that is age-verified. A curtain or a partition won’t cut it.” But some say this policy is flimsy and ineffective. While Gottlieb says it effectively functions as a ban for kids, the interpretation and execution of this separate room policy remains to be seen.
The FDA’s fight is not over. The proposed menthol cigarettes ban will have to make it through a protracted process for federal regulations, which could take at least two years. But the new restrictions still signal a strong move to regulate nicotine, and if realized are a victory in the fight against addictive and harmful tobacco products.