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Most e-cigarette flavors fall under new U.S. ban, but advocates say it’s not enough

The Trump administration took a long-anticipated step toward restricting the manufacturing, distribution and sale of most flavored e-cigarette products on Thursday, but public health advocates say it’s not enough to stop a surge in vaping among young Americans.

Flavored e-cigarette cartridges and products, such as mango and mint, appeal to and are more widely used by youth, according to federal survey data cited by Health Secretary Alex Azar during a call with reporters. The new rule, slated to take effect in February, will halt the production and sales of those flavors. These unauthorized products have not been previously approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Manufacturers also could be penalized for marketing to minors, such as featuring cartoon characters, juice boxes or cereal in their packaging.

Azar said the Trump administration “will not stand idly by as a new generation of Americans becomes addicted to nicotine.”

More than 5 million middle- and high-school teens said they vaped e-cigarette products, according to federal survey data released in 2019, up from 3.6 million a year earlier.

“No child should be using nicotine-containing products,” said Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephan Hahn.

Retailers can continue legally to offer tobacco and menthol flavors to customers age 21 and up, for those adults who may use the products “as an effective off-ramp” for combustible cigarette addiction, Azar said.

Hahn echoed Azar, emphasizing that the government wants to permit adults to purchase tobacco and menthol flavored e-cigarette products if they want to quit traditional cigarettes.

Back in September, the Trump administration alluded that tougher restrictions on e-cigarettes might be in the works. On Sept. 11, the FDA announced it would propose taking all flavors except for tobacco off the market — a somewhat more dramatic measure than what was put in place on Thursday.

The harsher stance came at the same time as a poorly understood vaping-related illness gained national attention. So far, the disease has killed 55 people and sickened 2,561 more around the country. In October, 80 percent of those treated for illness were under age 35.

Back then, Azar said, health officials had not fully analyzed youth survey data that indicated few young people prefer tobacco and menthol flavors of e-cigarette products, explaining why they had decided to allow those flavors in the end.

Mitch Zeller, who directs the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said that the illnesses linked to e-cigarette use are “a separate issue from the issue of youth utilization of e-cigarette and vaping devices.” In the months since the start of the outbreak, research has linked the vaping illness to THC, the key component in cannabis, and vitamin E acetate. But “at the end of the day, there may not be one sole cause” of deaths and illness, Zeller said.

The latest announcement comes on the heels of a new federal law that last month raised the legal age to purchase tobacco products from age 18 to 21. But while that law “will save lives,” Erika Sward, American Lung Association’s national assistant vice president for advocacy, said it will not stem the “e-cigarette epidemic because it does not ultimately get at the root of the problem.”

To public health advocates, the administration’s decision to not fully ban flavored e-cigarette products is “deeply disappointing,” Sward told the PBS NewsHour.

American Lung Association president Harold Wimmer said in a statement that it’s “sad to see an industry-supported approach take precedence over our kids’ lung health.”

Without stricter action, “our nation is going to be dealing with tobacco issues for decades to come,” Sward said. “The tobacco industry’s sway in Washington is very present.”

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