Photo: JUUL

JUUL e-cigarettes have become incredibly popular with teens for their high levels of nicotine and sleek design. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the product in its sights, and today announced an aggressive new push to keep the faddish nicotine product away from kids.

Last month, the FDA began age-compliance checks with retailers and has now issued 40 warning letters to stores like 7-Eleven and Shell across the country that were apparently selling JUULs to underage kids. The FDA says it has also been working with eBay to keep JUUL products from being purchased online by minors.

But the most unusual part of today’s announcement is that the FDA has sent an official request for documents to San Francisco-based JUUL Labs. The FDA wants to know what kind of research the company has on how kids might use their product, including whether certain product design features of the USB-charged device appeal to youth and whether different ingredients might be aimed at kids.

Traditional tobacco companies like Brown & Williamson infamously considered adding flavors like honey and Coca-Cola to cigarettes in order to explicitly appeal to teenagers.

From the FDA’s letter to JUUL:

FDA is requesting these documents based on growing concern about the popularity of JUUL products among youth. JUUL product use appears to be common in middle and high schools based on widespread media reporting describing a rapid growth of use among youth in general and on school property, numerous complaints that have been received by CTP, small research studies that have raised concerns, and social media evidence of youth use.

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The FDA cites concerns that JUUL products are unique and have “features that make them more appealing to kids and easier to use, thus causing increased initiation and/or use among youth.”

Gizmodo reached out to JUUL for comment about whether the company plans to release the requested documents to the FDA, but we got a fairly generic reply about responsibility and minors in return:

JUUL Labs agrees with the FDA that illegal sales of our product to minors are unacceptable. We already have in place programs to prevent and, if necessary, identify and act upon these violations at retail and online marketplaces, and we will announce additional measures in the coming days. We are working with the FDA, lawmakers, parents and community leaders to combat underage use, and we will continue working with all interested parties to keep our product away from youth.

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The FDA has the authority to regulate e-cigarettes, but the agency’s oversight of traditional tobacco is relatively recent. The FDA only began regulating tobacco in 2009. And that’s not a typo. 2009.

But there is one thing that differentiates this crackdown from traditional tobacco control policy of the 1990s and 2000s—an era that saw a decline in the number of places where Americans could smoke indoors. The FDA does acknowledge that e-cigarettes can be a good tobacco cessation product for adults, something that many people in the public health community were reluctant to do with other harm reduction products like nicotine gum and patches in the olden days. For the most hardcore anti-smoking advocates of the 2000s, it was often a puritanical adherence to cold turkey or nothing. But based on today’s statement, the FDA has come around.

People who smoke traditional cigarettes can sometimes find it easier to quit when they start vaping and slowly wean themselves with smaller hits of nicotine over a period of time. And the FDA seems to understand the importance of that now.

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“Make no mistake. We see the possibility for ENDS products like e-cigarettes and other novel forms of nicotine-delivery to provide a potentially less harmful alternative for currently addicted individual adult smokers who still want to get access to satisfying levels of nicotine without many of the harmful effects that come with the combustion of tobacco,” the FDA statement says. “But we’ve got to step in to protect our kids.”

Whether the FDA sticks to just protecting kids remains to be seen. But if the history of tobacco control policy in the US is any indication, adult vapers may see their ability to use e-cigarettes curtailed in the near future.

[FDA]

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