FDA to crack down on menthol cigarettes, flavored vapes

A top U.S. health official on Thursday pledged to try to ban menthol from regular cigarettes, outlaw flavors in all cigars, and tighten rules regarding the sale of most flavored versions of electronic cigarettes.

The move represents a major step to further push down U.S. smoking rates, which have been falling for decades.

The restrictions are mainly aimed at reducing smoking in kids: About half of teens who smoke cigarettes choose menthols and flavored e-cigarettes have been blamed for a recent increase in teen vaping rates.

“I will not allow a generation of children to become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes,” Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said in a statement.

Health advocates say a menthol ban would have greater impact on the health of Americans, but it would likely take years to put in place. The changes for e-cigarettes could kick in within a few months.

Battery-powered e-cigarettes are more popular among teens than regular smokes and are considered safer. But many versions contain potentially addictive nicotine, and health officials believe they set kids who try them on a path toward regular cigarettes.

Gottlieb called for measures to prevent the marketing of e-cigarettes directly to kids and ensure there are added safeguards preventing online sales of e-cigarettes to minors. He also proposed beefing up measures so that convenience stores and some other retailers don’t sell e-cigarettes in kid-friendly flavors like cherry and vanilla. They could still be sold in vape shops or other businesses who don’t admit minors.

Smoking is the nation’s leading cause of preventable illness, causing more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States. The FDA currently bans sales of e-cigarettes and tobacco products to those under 18.

In 2009, the government banned a number of kid-friendly flavorings in cigarettes. But after an aggressive lobbying effort by tobacco companies, menthol was exempted.

Gottlieb’s proposal for e-cigarette flavorings also exempts menthol. He said menthol e-cigarettes may be an option for adults who turn to vaping products to quit regular cigarettes and he decided not to push for an end to menthol flavoring in vaping products.

Smoking has been declining for more than five decades. Some 42 percent of U.S. adults smoked in the early 1960s. Last year, it was down to 14 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts credit anti-smoking campaigns, cigarette taxes and smoking bans for most of the decline in the adult rate. But some say adult smokers switching to e-cigarettes have also helped drive down the rate in recent years.

The cigarette smoking rate is even lower among high school students — about 9 percent, according to the latest figures.

But e-cigarette use jumped 78 percent this year in high school kids and 48 percent among middle school kids, Gottlieb said, citing new survey data.

The FDA has been taken earlier steps to investigate the marketing of e-cigarettes by a number of companies, including the market leader, Juul Labs Inc. of a San Francisco. Getting out ahead of today’s FDA announcement, Juul on Tuesday stopped filling store orders for mango, fruit, creme and cucumber pods and will resume sales only to retailers that scan IDs and take other steps to verify a buyer is at least 21. The company said Juul will continue to sell menthol and mint at stores, and sell all flavors through its website.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.