E-Smoke and Mirrors: Why Expecting E-Cigarette Manufacturers to Solve Teen Vaping is Futile


By: Jake Plovanic

In September, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave Juul Labs and four other manufacturers of e-cigarettes 60 days to provide a detailed plan for keeping their products out of the hands of the nation’s youth. An insufficient response from manufacturers could have resulted in the FDA handing down a ban on the sale of Juul’s top-selling flavored nicotine pods. The deadline expired this past Tuesday, and in a surprising move, Juul announced a voluntary withdrawal of most of its flavored nicotine products from retail stores.

Prior to this most recent development, the FDA introduced an anti-vaping ad campaign aimed at scaring teenagers away from the new products. The ads piggyback on the FDA’s recent Real Cost campaign against teen use of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products, which has proven successful with its focus on the cosmetic effects of tobacco use and the dangerous chemicals contained within tobacco smoke. But the primary selling point of e-cigarettes – and the principal rationale behind Juul’s marketing stance as a safer adult alternative to cigarettes – is the lack of the toxic byproducts of burning tobacco while still giving the user a sufficient nicotine “hit.” As the rate of adult cigarette use continues to decline, even the FDA recognizes the “potentially less harmful” nature of e-cigarettes. Unless the FDA can demonstrate that nicotine addiction from e-cigarettes presents the same sort of visceral harm as traditional tobacco use, today’s teenagers are unlikely to be any more swayed against vaping. Further, placing the burden of dissuading teens on the manufacturers of e-cigarettes is unlikely to be successful, since they are in the business of selling more e-cigarettes. Despite Juul’s attempt to limit retail access of its products, without a consistent approach across the entire market, the effects on teen use of vaping products will be minimal.

The Genie Is Out of the Bottle

The FDA is reacting to a surge in teen use of vaping products, which means that it’s probably too late to curtail vape usage by any means short of an outright ban on e-cigarettes. Juul and other manufacturers were already prohibited from selling e-cigarettes to consumers younger than 18 years, and several jurisdictions, such as California, have set the minimum age for purchasing vaping products at 21. Yet, even with age restrictions in place, the use of these products by minors has still reached “epidemic” proportions. There is some evidence that a nationwide 21-year age requirement would be effective at curtailing minors’ access to vaping products from peers in the 18-20 year range, but that kind of regulation would require legislative action beyond the FDA’s reach.

Can Any Manufacturer-Led Campaign Be Successful at Reducing Teen Vaping?

Before this week, Juul had taken steps to minimize the accessibility of its product to minors. The website explicitly disclaims that the intended use of Juul is only for current adult smokers looking to switch to vaping. In May of this year, Juul ended an attempt to provide an anti-vaping curriculum in high schools after receiving criticism from public health educators. Given the ineffectiveness of retailer-level campaigns, the uneven nationwide age restrictions, and the fact that e-cigarettes are the most commonly used tobacco product by American youth, it will be challenging for Juul to create a plan that actually complies with the FDA’s demands while staying in business. And the retreat from retail outlets only means that consumers will have to get their Juul products online, a medium that is neither unfamiliar nor inaccessible to today’s teenagers.

Juul’s response may satisfy the FDA for now, but it is unlikely to curb the current rates of teenage vaping, negating the FDA’s purpose in having the manufacturers comply. The FDA will likely impose a retail ban of all flavored nicotine products in the coming week, which may spark a legal battle with the other major manufacturers of vaping products, many of whom are the well-monied old guard of the tobacco industry like R.J. Reynolds and Altria. With that kind of drawn-out fight looming, expecting e-cigarette manufacturers to solve the problem of teenage vaping is likely a futile effort.

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