Bitter news for Juul fans: the US government plans to ban flavored e-cigarettes

Farewell, cotton-candy clouds of smoke.
Farewell, cotton-candy clouds of smoke.
Image: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes as early as next week, senior agency officials told the Washington Post yesterday (Nov. 8).

Back in September, the FDA gave Juul Labs and four other e-cigarette brands an ultimatum: They had 60 days to prove they could keep their products away from minors, or else risk being pulled from the market. That grace period ends Nov. 11, and reports indicate that the FDA has already made up its mind. (In an email to Quartz on Nov. 9, an FDA spokesperson said the agency has no information to share at the time.)

Senior FDA officials told the Post and other news outlets that the agency will prohibit the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes in convenience stores and gas stations across the country. In addition, online retailers will only be able to sell flavored vapes if they enact age-verification requirements set out by the federal agency. FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb is expected to make these announcements next week. (Juul already has plans to pull its mango-, cucumber-, crème-, and other fruit-flavored nicotine pods from these brick-and-mortar stores, CNBC reports.)

But there is an exception: mint and menthol flavors. Convenience stores and gas stations will still be able to sell e-cig cartridges in these flavors because menthol is still permitted in normal cigarettes, and there are concerns that users of mint-flavored e-cigs might switch to regular tobacco cigarettes instead. However, the FDA is reportedly considering banning regular menthol cigarettes, and if teenage vaping doesn’t decline, mint- and menthol-flavored e-cigarettes as well.

“We know that the flavors play an important role in driving the youth appeal,” Gottlieb said in a statement earlier this year. Research has found that sweet flavors, in particular, are more likely to get teens hooked. In fact, a study published in July, led by researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine, found that teenagers preferred sweet-flavored e-cigarettes with no nicotine over e-cigs with nicotine but no sweetness.

E-cigarette proponents argue that vapes are an important tool in helping adult smokers quit traditional cigarettes. A report released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Nov. 8 found that cigarette use among US adults is at a record low, although the authors credit smoke-free policies and rising prices of tobacco products, and not the rising popularity of vaping.

Teenage vaping has been the FDA’s primary concern for some time now..In an interview with CNBC’s news program, “Squawk Box,” Gottlieb cited yet-to-be-published FDA data showing e-cigarette use among high-school and middle-school kids rose 77% and 50%, respectively, from 2017 to 2018. That translates to some 3.5 million minors who vaped at least once in 2018. In April, the FDA launched an investigation into Juul to determine if they were marketing to teens (the results of which have not been released), and in September, it sent more than a thousand letters to retailers warning them not to sell e-cigarettes to minors, and issued 131 monetary penalties to stores that did. If next week’s ban comes to pass, it will be the US’s biggest crackdown on vapes yet.