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On September 11, 2018, Nicopure Labs, LLC and the Right to be Smoke-Free Coalition (the “Appellants”) appeared for oral argument before a three-judge panel in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to appeal a decision issued last year by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which ruled in favor of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) in the first lawsuit challenging various provisions of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (“TCA” or “Act”) and FDA’s Deeming Rule as they are being applied to the vapor industry.[1]

During oral argument, the Appellants argued that the Modified Risk Tobacco Product (“MRTP”) preclearance requirement imposed by Section 911 of the TCA violates the First Amendment as applied to vapor products. In addition, the Appellants argued that application of the Act’s free sample ban to vapor products violates the First Amendment, and that FDA failed to tailor the Premarket Tobacco Application (“PMTA”) requirements to ensure the continued availability of vapor products.  Below, we provide a brief overview of the issues discussed at the oral argument. The recording of the hearing is available here.[2]  For background on the appeal, see our previous blog posts, including copies of the legal briefs, available here and here.

Modified Risk Claims

Appellants argued that the dichotomy in the current law – that manufacturers are legally permitted to sell vapor products for recreational purposes, but not allowed to make objectively truthful statements about those products (e.g., that they do not contain or produce tar, ash, or smoke, among other harmful chemicals found in cigarette smoke), or simply repeat FDA’s and various public health organizations’ statements that vapor products pose less risk than cigarettes – runs afoul of the First Amendment, which protects commercial speech. Indeed, Appellants stated that the requirement to ask permission is a First Amendment injury itself. Further, the Appellants contended that under current law, even if every federal judge in the country found a vapor company’s statements about its products to be true, if FDA determines that such a statement does not benefit public health, it would still be prohibited.

Appellants also discussed application of the Supreme Court’s intermediate scrutiny test to the MRTP provision. Under that approach, restrictions on commercial speech are judged under the four-pronged Central Hudson test, in which Courts ask whether: (1) the speech concerns a lawful activity and is not misleading; (2) the asserted government interest is “substantial”; (3) the restriction directly and materially advances the governmental interest; and (4) the restriction is no more extensive than is necessary to serve that interest.[3] As to the third prong, Appellants maintained that the MRTP provision does not directly and materially advance the government’s interest because others can make similar public statements without any preclearance approval.

The Appellants also noted that the clear trajectory of modern U.S. Supreme Court First Amendment jurisprudence requires that, under the fourth prong of Central Hudson, if the government can achieve its interest in a way that is less restrictive than a prior restraint, it must do so. For example, FDA could rely on non-speech alternatives standing alone or in combination with each other to prevent potentially misleading modified risk claims, such as enforcing the TCA’s misbranding and adulteration provisions, requiring manufacturers to maintain records substantiating such claims, requiring the use of disclaimers, and conducting post-market surveillance.

Free Sample Ban & PMTA Tailoring

Appellants also argued that under the Supreme Court’s decision in Tex. v. Johnson free samples are protected under the First Amendment. [4] Under that case, whether conduct is “sufficiently imbued with elements of communication” to warrant First Amendment protection depends on whether there is “an intent to convey a particularized message” and “the likelihood [is] great that the message [will] be understood by those who view it.”[5] Here, vapor companies intend to send a message to consumers through their distribution of free samples; thus sampling is a form of protected speech. Appellants argued that it is not enough for vapor companies to simply state that their e-liquid tastes better than a conventional cigarette, for example, but instead the only way to convey this information – the personalized experience of vaping a particular flavor – is through providing a sample. This is expressive conduct. Appellants also maintained that the ban on free samples violates the third and fourth prongs of Central Hudson. For instance, neither Congress nor FDA produced any evidence that minors are, in fact, obtaining access to vapor products through free samples, and there are ample non-speech restrictions that could limit access by youth, such as enhanced enforcement initiatives and minimum age verification at retailers.

In addition, Appellants argued that the PMTA requirements were insufficiently tailored to ensure the continued availability of vapor products. Specifically, given that FDA determined that the vast majority of manufacturers will exit the market before filing PMTAs due to the high cost of long-term, product-specific studies (for more on this see here), Appellants maintained that FDA should have considered accepting for scientific review PMTAs for vapor products that do not contain such studies but otherwise comply with the PMTA informational requirements. FDA could still do a complete review of those PMTAs, which would include a scientific literature review of the population effects of vapor products as such evidence exists in 2022, when PMTAs are expected to be filed under FDA’s current compliance policy for products on the market as of August 8, 2016.

Post-Argument Activity

One day after the oral argument, FDA submitted a letter to the D.C. Circuit Clerk of the Court, informing the court that, on September 12, 2018, FDA announced significant new actions, including enforcement initiatives, to address an alleged “epidemic of e-cigarette use among teenagers.”[6] We previously blogged about FDA’s enforcement “blitz” here.  The letter notes that “FDA is reconsidering the extended compliance dates for the submission of new product applications when it is apparent that there is widespread youth use of the product, and is also considering a policy change that would lead to the immediate removal of flavored e-cigarette products from the market.”

Indeed, in letters to several large manufacturers of cartridge-based e-cigarettes, FDA threatened to revisit the August 8, 2022 PMTA compliance date (for those companies’ and potentially similar products), if the targeted companies failed to submit within 60 days comprehensive plans to address sales of their products to minors.

On September 17, 2018, Appellants submitted a response to the FDA’s letter, arguing that it “provides no new authorities [as required by Federal Rule 28(j)] and instead describes enforcement actions that have nothing to do with appellants and target a portion of the e-cigarette industry.”[7] Appellants point out that FDA’s enforcement actions, which ostensibly target 97 percent of the e-cigarette market – actually only address the “cartridge-based” e-cigarette market, which is only a portion of the overall vapor products market. Indeed, FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb pointed out that sales of open-tank vaping products, which Appellants primarily market, do not appear to be driving the government’s claimed increase in underage use. Regardless, Appellants maintained that FDA’s recent enforcement actions prove their point: if FDA is concerned about purchases by or marketing of vapor products to youth, it can and should advance that interest through actions targeted at that problem (e.g., warning letters to retailers), not through a blanket prohibition on all truthful, non-misleading speech by manufacturers to adults.[8]

Next Steps

While it is impossible to state with certainty when the D.C. Circuit will rule on the case, we believe it is reasonable to expect a decision sometime in early 2019. We will keep readers of this blog updated on the outcome of the case.

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[1] At the hearing, Miguel Estrada of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher represented Nicopure Labs, and Eric Gotting of Keller and Heckman represented both Nicopure Labs and the Right to be Smoke-Free Coalition.

[2] Oral argument, Nicopure Labs et al. v. FDA, Case No. 15-5196 (D.C. Cir. Sept. 12, 2018), recording available at https://tinyurl.com/y8xzmsr4.

[3] Lorillard Tobacco Co. v. Reilly, 533 U.S. 525, 554-55 (2001) (summarizing test outlined in Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n of N.Y., 447 U.S. 557 (1980)).

[4] See Tex. v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989).

[5] Id. at 404 (citations and internal quotations omitted).

[6] See Letter from Tyce R. Walters to Mr. Mark Langer, Clerk of the Court re: Nicopure Labs, LLC v. FDA, No. 17-5196 (oral argument heard Sept. 11, 2018);  See also U.S. Food & Drug Admin., FDA News Release, FDA Takes New Steps to Address Epidemic of Youth E-Cigarette Use, Including a Historic Action Against More Than 1,300 Retailers and 5 Major Manufacturers for Their Roles Perpetuating Youth Access (Sept. 12, 2018), https://tinyurl.com/y9gh3dyg; U.S. Food & Drug Admin., FDA Statement, Statement From FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., on New Steps to Address Epidemic of Youth E-Cigarette Use (Sept. 12, 2018), https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm620185.htm.

[7] See September 17, 2018 letter from Miguel A. Estrada and Eric P. Gotting to Mr. Mark Langer, Clerk of the Court re: Nicopure Labs, LLC v. FDA, No. 17-5196 (oral argument heard Sept. 11, 2018).

[8] Id.; See also Thompson v. W. States Med. Ctr., 535 U.S. 357, 371 (2002) (“[I]f the Government could achieve its interests in a manner that does not restrict speech, or that restricts less speech, the Government must do so.”) (emphasis added).