FDA Limits On Menthol and Teen Vaping Are More Than Just Smoke
More than half of smokers ages 12-17 use menthol; 3.6 million middle- and high-school kids smoke e-cigarettes. Public health is at stake: Our view
The Trump administration has focused on rolling back regulations, but its Food and Drug Administration took major steps Thursday aimed at curbing use of traditional and electronic cigarettes.
Those steps, if enacted over industry opposition, will significantly improve public health.
The most important development was the FDA’s move to ban menthol cigarettes — a long overdue prohibition that could transform the habits of millions of addicted smokers. For nearly a decade, the government has failed to take action against menthol, even as scientists have documented its specific harms.
OPPOSING VIEW: Menthol ban will make a bad situation worse
Menthol is more than a cigarette flavor. It’s a chemical compound that cools and numbs the throat, making it easier for new smokers — 90 percent of whom are under 18 — to start. More than half of smokers ages 12 to 17 use menthol cigarettes; among African-American youth the share is 70 percent.
Young people who start on menthol are more likely to become addicted and find it harder to quit. For decades, Big Tobacco targeted African-Americans with menthol cigarette marketing. It’s long past time to end this craven strategy.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s announcement that he will “advance” a new rule to ban menthol in cigarettes and begin a separate process to ban menthol and other flavored cigars is promising, though regulations can take years to write, finalize, and take effect.
The tobacco industry has a lot at stake. More than a third of cigarette sales in 2016 were menthol. If history is any guide, the major companies will lobby their allies in Congress and the White House, and they might even seek to stop the FDA with lawsuits.
In the face of a surge in youth vaping, Gottlieb also announced new restrictions on the sale of sweet-flavored e-cigarettes. Those products could be sold only in retail outlets that restrict entrance to anyone under 18 or keep the products in a separate age-restricted section — a change expected to prevent sales at most gas stations and convenience stores. Tobacco and vape stores or any outlet, as long as it restricts entrance to adults, could still sell them. Online sales will require stricter age verification.
Whether vape stores actually restrict entrance is an open question, as is how the agency would enforce this policy or what strictures will be added online. One thing is certain, none of this will be easy.
Gottlieb is also trying to walk a fine line by restricting sales of sweet-flavored e-cigarettes that appeal to teenagers but stopping short of restricting mint, menthol and tobacco flavors so they remain available to adults using e-cigarettes to kick their deadly smoking habits.
Statistics released Thursday, months early because the findings of a national survey were so troubling, underscore how dangerous the vaping craze, epitomized by the wildly popular Juul pods, has become. E-cigarette use among high school students was up nearly 80 percent this year — and 48 percent among those in middle school — compared with a year earlier.
This year, 3.6 million middle- and high-school students have been vaping, with more than a quarter doing so 20 times during the prior month. This goes way beyond experimenting. While vaping is less dangerous than smoking, there is nothing good about creating a new generation of nicotine addicts.
And even though smoking rates fell to record lows last year, the rates tell only part of the story. About 34 million adults still smoked in 2017, and 2.7 million middle- and high-school students smoked cigarettes and cigars last year. These are not just statistics. They are people, many of whom will die prematurely of heart disease, cancer, stroke and other tobacco-related illnesses.
The FDA’s announcements are encouraging. Now comes the hard work of turning them into reality.