Federal officials announced a nationwide crackdown Tuesday on the underage use of Juul, a popular e-cigarette brand.
The Food and Drug Administration issued warnings to 40 retail and online stores as part of a month-long operation against illegal sales of Juul to minors following criticisms from parents, politicians and school administrators, reports AP News.
The warnings were given to 7-Eleven locations, Shell gas stations and Cumberland Farms convenience stores as well as vaping stores.
Earlier this month, the FDA described vaping as the next epidemic among U.S. high schoolers. There was a 900 percent increase in e-cigarette use by high school students from 2011 to 2016, according to a 2016 report. An estimated 11 percent of high schoolers and 4.3 percent of middle schoolers used e-cigarettes in 2016.
Another recent government-commissioned report found “substantial evidence” that young people who use e-cigarettes are more likely to try cigarettes.
Additionally, regulators have asked manufacturer Juul Labs to hand over documents about the design, marketing and ingredients of its product, focusing on whether certain product features are specifically attractive to young people.
“We don’t yet fully understand why these products are so popular among youth,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb wrote in the public statement. “But it’s imperative that we figure it out, and fast. These documents may help us get there.”
Juul e-Cigarettes Available in Flavors, Shaped Like Flash Drives
One feature researchers say may be appealing to younger potential users is its available flavors such as cotton candy and sour gummy worms. A recent John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health survey found 81 percent of minors who currently vape said their main reason for doing so is “availability of appealing flavors.”
Another feature is that the product is shaped like a flash drive and can be easily concealed. As a result, some schools have gone as far as banning flash drives to avoid confusion.
Researchers also say teens are mistakenly thinking there is no health risk associated with vaping or e-cigarettes.
“The kids that I talk to believe that there’s nothing in there that’s dangerous. They don’t think there’s anything more than water,” said Francis Thompson, principal at Jonathan Law High School in Milford, Connecticut.
E-cigarettes contain “e-liquid” that may contain nicotine and changes to an aerosol when heated. One Juul nicotine cartridge provides around 200 puffs, which contains about the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.
Gottlieb says the current “blitz” on retailers will continue throughout the month with additional actions in coming weeks.
“This isn’t the only product that we’re looking at, and this isn’t the only action we’re going to be taking to target youth access to tobacco products, and e-cigarettes, in particular,” he said in an interview.
Other brands of concern include KandyPens and myblue, but Juul sales account for 55 percent of the U.S. market for e-cigarettes. In 2016, that figure was just five percent. The act of smoking any of these brands’ devices has come to be known simply as “juuling”.
According to Gottlieb, the FDA has conducted 908,280 inspections of tobacco retailers, issued 70,350 warning letters and initiated about 17,000 civil money penalty cases in its efforts to stop the sale of e-cigarettes and other tobacco products to minors, reports CNN.
Anti-Smoking Advocates Criticize FDA, Juul Voices Support for Ending Minor Usage
While the FDA gained authority to regulate e-cigarettes in 2016, many anti-smoking advocates have criticized the organization for not more aggressively monitoring these companies’ practices.
“These are very positive steps and demonstrate that FDA recognizes the problem of youth use is very serious,” said Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “But they don’t address the biggest issue that the FDA has not been enforcing its own rules.”
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says Juul and other e-cigarette companies have launched new flavors without approval from the FDA, which is a mandatory step under the FDA regulations set forth during the summer of 2016.
Juul spokeswoman Victoria Davis says the company “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.”
The company says it will invest $30 million over three years to fund independent research, youth and parent education and community endangerment efforts, according to CNBC. It also says it will support state and federal initiatives to raise the tobacco-buying age to 21.
The company will work with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, public officials and others interested in tobacco control to create a framework to research both the scientific and societal effects of vapor products.
CEO Kevin Burns says the co-founders created the product to help adults quit smoking tobacco products and switch to a better alternative.
“At the same time, we are committed to deterring young people, as well as adults who do not currently smoke, from using our products. We cannot be more emphatic on this point: No young person or non-nicotine user should ever try (Juul),” he said.
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