By Melissa Healy

Los Angeles Times

Responding to an “epidemic of nicotine addiction” among young Americans, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday announced a comprehensive crackdown on e-cigarette manufacturers, directing the industry’s giants to draw up detailed plans for halting sales to minors and threatening to pull a wide range of products, including flavorings that appeal to underage buyers, from an exploding market.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb called the agency’s steps the largest coordinated enforcement effort in his agency’s history and said it was prompted by alarming new evidence e-cigarette use by minors has risen to levels he called “simply not tolerable.”

In response to a nationwide undercover investigation of brick-and-mortar and online stores over the summer, the FDA levied civil fines on e-cigarette retailers found to have sold their products to minors and issued more than 1,300 warning letters.

What’s more, Gottlieb said the vaping industry appears to have turned a blind eye to the online practice of “straw purchasing” by retailers and individuals intent on buying vaping products and reselling them to minors.

The agency also ordered 12 online retailers to halt their continued marketing of e-liquids resembling kid-friendly food products such as candy and cookies. Although the FDA had acted in May to limit the sale of such products, they were still being offered, with the offending labeling and advertising, by the 12 online retailers, several of whom were also cited for sales to minors.

The FDA move was greeted with defiance and derision from the vaping industry.

“Thousands of small-business vape shops across America do not engage in irresponsible marketing practices and don’t even sell the products being targeted by the FDA with threatening letters,” said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates for what it calls “sensible regulation.”

“Despite this, Commissioner Gottlieb is threatening to shut down all these businesses unless larger manufacturers unilaterally choose to change their marketing practices,” Conley added. “It is absolutely absurd and a perversion of how regulatory agencies are supposed to approach their work.”

Conley called Gottlieb’s initiative “nothing more than a gift to the tobacco industry,” whose stock prices jumped on news of the FDA’s vaping crackdown.

Public health groups, on the other hand, said lax regulation was the reason teen vaping became such a problem in the first place.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network called Wednesday’s actions a “necessary first step” but said officials could do much more.

E-cigarettes have become the tobacco product most commonly used by American adolescents. Their popularity is rising “very sharply,” Gottlieb said. In 2017, more than 2 million middle and high school students acknowledged they were current users of vaping products, according to the Monitoring the Future survey. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that e-cigarettes have become the tobacco product of choice among middle and high school students.