Photo of Azim ChowdhuryPhoto of Adam Susser

Following a series of actions over the last several months, on November 15, 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) announced new steps aimed at protecting youth from tobacco, including, among other things, preventing access to flavored electronic nicotine delivery system (“ENDS”) sold in certain retail locations, and potentially banning menthol in combustible tobacco products.[1]  Spurred by the release of new data from the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey (“NYTS”) showing a rise in e-cigarette use among youth over the past year, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., announced a number of steps to prevent youth access to, and use of, tobacco products, including: (i) directing the Center for Tobacco Products (“CTP”) to revisit FDA’s premarket review compliance policy for flavored ENDS, other than tobacco, mint and menthol flavors, sold in retail outlets that are not adult (18+) only; (ii) directing CTP to publish additional information regarding best practices for age-restricting online sales; (iii) issuing a Proposed Rulemaking that would seek to ban menthol in combustible tobacco products, including cigarettes and cigars; (iv) issuing a Proposed Rulemaking to ban, through appropriate means, all flavors in cigars; and (v) advancing a policy that aggressively pursues the removal of ENDS products that appear to too kid-friendly.

National Youth Tobacco Survey Data

On November 15, 2018, the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) released new findings from the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey showing that more than 3.6 million middle and high school students were “current e-cigarette users” – defined as having used e-cigarettes once in the past thirty days – in 2018, which FDA described as a “dramatic increase of more than 1.5 million students since last year.”[2]  As background, the NYTS “is a cross-sectional, voluntary, school-based, self-administered, pencil-and-paper survey of U.S. middle and high school students.”[3]

According to the FDA news release, “the number of U.S. high school students who reported being current e-cigarette users increased 78 percent between 2017 and 2018 to 3.05 million (or 20.8 percent).”[4]  Further, “among middle school students, numbers rose 48 percent [from the previous year] to 570,000 (or 4.9 percent) [of total middle school students].”  What is more, the NYTS data showed that high school students who reported being current e-cigarette users reported using these products more frequently.  Indeed, “[i]n the last year, the proportion of those [high school students] using the product more regularly (on 20 or more of the past 30 days) increased from 20 percent to 27.7 percent[.]”[5]  The study authors suggest that rising e-cigarette use in the last year is likely attributable “to the recent popularity of certain types of e-cigarettes, such as JUUL,” noting that these and similar products “have a high nicotine content and come in appealing fruit and candy flavors.”[6]

In his statement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. explained that “[w]e still believe that non-combustible forms of nicotine delivery, such as e-cigarettes, may be less harmful alternatives for currently addicted adult smokers who still seek nicotine[,]” but clarified that “FDA will not allow” the opportunity presented by e-cigarettes “to come at the expense of addicting a whole new generation of kids to nicotine.”[7]  CDC Director, Robert R. Redfield, M.D., echoed these concerns stating that “[t]he markedly accelerating rate of e-cigarette use among U.S. youth within the past year is a cause for grave concern” and noting that it is “critical that we implement proven strategies to protect our Nation’s youth from this preventable health risk.”[8]

FDA Announces New Policy Framework to Combat Rising Youth Use of Tobacco Products, Including ENDS

In response to the NYTS data, FDA announced a new policy framework designed to address rising youth use of tobacco products, including ENDS.

Limiting Sales of Flavored ENDS (Other Than Tobacco, Mint and Menthol) to Adults-Only Retailers  

First, FDA announced that all flavored ENDS products (other than tobacco, mint, and menthol flavors, or non-flavored products) will be required to be sold in age-restricted, in-person locations, or else potentially be subjected to a revised Premarket Tobacco Product Application (“PMTA”) deadline.  This policy revision would apply to all ENDS products, including e-liquids, cartridge-based systems and cigalikes, in flavors except tobacco, mint, and menthol, sold in physical locations where people under age 18 are permitted.[9]  This policy revision would not apply to ENDS products sold exclusively in age-restricted locations (e.g., a stand-alone tobacco retailer (such as a vape shop)) that adequately prevent persons under age 18 from entering the store at any time; or, a section of an establishment that adequately prevents entry of persons under age 18 and prevents persons under age 18 from viewing or accessing flavored ENDS products.[10]  As noted, this policy revision does not apply to ENDS products with tobacco, mint, or menthol flavors, as well as to non-flavored ENDS products, sold in any location.

In other words, vape shops that restrict access to adults (18+) only will be able to continue to sell a wide variety of flavored e-liquids/ENDS.  ENDS products sold in locations that are not adults-only, however, will be limited to only tobacco, mint and menthol flavored products; other flavors (e.g., cherry, vanilla, crème, tropical, melon, etc.) sold in such locations, while not “banned” per se, will be subject to a revised compliance policy that could move the PMTA deadline earlier than the current August 8, 2022 deadline for ENDS products on the market as of August 8, 2016.

The Commissioner also noted that FDA plans to continue to aggressively pursue removing ENDS products marketed to children and/or appealing to youth from the market.  These marketing practices may include “using popular children’s cartoon or animated characters” or “names of products favored by kids like brands of candy or soda.”[11]

Heightened Age Verification for Online Sales

Second, FDA announced that it would seek to curtail the sale of flavored ENDS products (other than tobacco, mint and menthol) that are sold online without “heightened age verification” processes.  To advance this goal, FDA plans to identify and publish a list of best practices for online retailers.

Earlier this week, in addition to promising to cease selling flavored products (other than tobacco, mint and menthol) in all brick-and-mortar retailers, JUUL announced its own comprehensive online age-verification process:

Flavored Cigars and Menthol Cigarettes

Third, FDA announced that flavored cigars will no longer be subject to the extended compliance date for premarket authorization (which currently sets the premarket application deadline for cigars on the market on August 8, 2016 to be August 8, 2021).  However, this policy does not apply to the entire product category, as certain flavored cigars are considered “grandfathered” and exempt from premarket review if they were on the market as of February 15, 2007.[12]  To address this gap in regulatory authority, FDA plans to propose a product standard that would ban all flavored cigars.

Fourth, FDA announced plans to publish a Proposed Rule in the Federal Register that would seek to ban menthol in combustible tobacco products, including cigarettes and cigars.

Implications for the ENDS Product Category

FDA’s approach to addressing rising youth use of certain flavored (e.g., non-tobacco, mint, and menthol flavored) cartridge-based e-cigarette products may be effective, but is also potentially subject to legal challenge.  Section 906(d)(3) of the Tobacco Control Act expressly states that “no restrictions under [906(d)(1)] may — (i) prohibit the sale of any tobacco product in face-to-face transactions by a specific category of retail outlets.”  Nevertheless, a prohibition on the sale of flavored ENDS at retail outlets (e.g., convenience stores) appears to be precisely what FDA plan to accomplish, albeit through indirect means.

In particular, FDA’s announcement is framed as a withdrawal of an “enforcement discretion” policy, previously applicable to certain flavored ENDS products.  Arguably, the practical effect of this compliance policy revision is a prohibition on the sale of a tobacco product in face-to-face transactions by a specific category of retail outlets (e.g., generally accessible convenience stores).  That said, FDA will likely argue that it is simply reverting to the state of the law at the time of the Deeming Rule.  Further, FDA is likely to justify its policy by noting that it expressly allows sales of flavored ENDS products at all retail outlets, provided that the retail outlet has an “adults-only” section where flavored ENDS products are not visible to youth who may otherwise be in the store.  This action aligns with the requirements currently applicable to the distribution of samples of smokeless tobacco products in “qualified adult[s]-only” facilities.[13]

In any case, only time will tell whether FDA’s actions to address the rise in youth use of tobacco products, including flavored ENDS products, will be effective at curtailing youth access.  In the interim, e-liquid manufacturers will increasingly rely on specialty tobacco product retailers (e.g., “vape shops”) and age-verified online channels to distribute their products to adults.

If you have any questions regarding FDA’s recent announcements contact Azim Chowdhury (chowdhury@khlaw.com) and be sure to register for Keller and Heckman’s 3rd Annual Tobacco and E-Vapor Law Symposium in Miami, Florida on January 29-30, 2019 here.

_____________________________________________________

[1] U.S. Food & Drug Admin., FDA Statement, Statement From FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., on Proposed New Steps to Protect Youth by Preventing Access to Flavored Tobacco Products and Banning Menthol in Cigarettes (Nov. 15, 2018) (hereinafter, the “FDA Nov. 15, 2018 Statement”), https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/UCM625884.htm?utm_campaign=111518_Statement_FDA%20Commissioner%20statement%20on%20proposals%20to%20address%20youth%20tobacco%20use&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Eloqua.

[2] U.S. Food & Drug Admin., FDA News Release, Results from 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey Show Dramatic Increase in E-Cigarette Use Among Youth Over Past Year (Nov. 15, 2018), https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm625917.htm?utm_campaign=111518_PR_New%20federal%20findings%20show%20dramatic%20increase%20in%20youth%20e-cigarette%20use&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Eloqua.

[3] Id., supra n.2.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] FDA Nov. 15, 2018 Statement, supra n.1.

[10] Id.

[11] FDA Nov. 15, 2018 Statement, supra n.1.

[12] Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, Pub. L. 111-31, 123 Stat. 1776 (June 22, 2009) (hereinafter, the “Tobacco Control Act”), at § 910(a)(1)(A) (defining a new tobacco product” as “any tobacco product (including those products in test markets) that was not commercially marketed in the United States as of February 15, 2007”).

[13] Tobacco Control Act, supra n.11, at § 102(d)(2)(A).

Photo of Azim ChowdhuryPhoto of Adam Susser

On September 12, 2018, in a self-described “blitz”, FDA announced a deluge of enforcement actions, including more than 1,300 warning letters and fines to retailers aimed at addressing youth use of e-cigarettes, which FDA asserts has reached “epidemic” proportions, based on new, not-yet-released survey data.[1]  FDA also requested manufacturers of five “national brands,” whose cartridge (pod) based e-cigarettes the Agency claimed make up 97% of the “current e-cigarette market” (but apparently excluding the open-system vapor products market), and allegedly represent the majority of e-cigarettes sold to minors, to provide detailed plans to curtail youth use of their products.  FDA also threatened drastic action that could impact the entire vapor industry, and millions of former smokers that rely on a variety of vapor products, if adequate responses are not received.

Addressing Increase in Underage E-Cigarette Use; Stopping Access at the Retail Level

In its press release, FDA clarified that these enforcement actions were part of a “large-scale, undercover nationwide” crack down on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors at both brick-and-mortar and online retailers.  FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb further stated that FDA had failed “to predict what [he] now believe[s] is an epidemic of e-cigarette use among teenagers.”  While he reiterated that FDA is “fully committed to the concept that products that deliver nicotine exist on a continuum of risk, with combustible products representing the highest risk, and [e-cigarettes] perhaps presenting an alternative for adult smokers who still seek access to satisfying levels of nicotine, but without all of the harmful effects that come from combustion,” he was unequivocal with respect to underage use, emphasizing FDA’s Youth Tobacco Prevention Plan launched earlier this year, and stating that he “won’t tolerate a whole generation of young people becoming addicted to nicotine as a tradeoff for enabling adults to have unfettered access to these same products.”  On September 18, 2018, FDA issued another press release announcing that it would be advancing “The Real Cost” Youth E-Cigarette Prevention Campaign to educate teens about the dangers of using e-cigarettes.

Notably, all of the cartridge-based e-cigarettes now being targeted by FDA (and the Big Tobacco brands in particular) are sold primarily in convenience stores, gas stations and similar outlets (along with cigarettes and other tobacco products), and appear to be the main source of youth access, as well as the focus of FDA’s retailer enforcement efforts.  Indeed, the vast majority of the 1,300 warning letters and civil monetary penalties were sent to these types of retailers, rather than to vape shops dedicated to open-system vapor products.  While dozens of vape shops and online vape retailers have also been cited by FDA for selling products to minors, those instances appear to represent just a fraction of the millions of transactions that occur annually in the 10,000+ dedicated vape shops across the country.[2]

FDA Focuses on JUUL and JUUL-Like E-Cigarettes; Distinguishes Youth Concerns Between Closed and Open System Vapor Products

Although FDA’s recent announcement refers simply to the “e-cigarette market”, the vapor industry is actually very diverse and complex. Closed-system and cartridge-based e-cigarettes (like JUUL), the adolescent use of which FDA has made clear is its primary public health concern, is only a portion of the overall U.S. vapor products market, along with open-system vapor products (e.g., tanks, mods, e-liquids, etc.).

Indeed, FDA has been focusing on youth-use of cartridge-based e-cigarettes, and JUUL in particular, for several months, as stories about rampant teenage use have been heavily reported in the media, and the focus of Congressional inquiries.

Back on April 24, 2018, FDA announced its first set of 40 warning letters to retailers for underage sales of JUUL e-cigarettes and that it was examining the youth appeal of these products in an effort to end their sale to minors.  FDA used its authority under Section 904(b) of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA) to request JUUL Labs submit information regarding its marketing and research studies, and any other information it had on how certain product features might appeal to different age groups.  Subsequently, in May 2018 FDA sent a second set of requests to several manufacturers seeking information on their JUUL-like products, including information on product marketing and design (as it may relate to the appeal or addictive potential for youth and youth-related adverse experiences), and consumer complaints, among other things.[3]

FDA has now announced that it is targeting five national brands that dominate the closed-system e-cigarette market –  JUUL and four other cartridge-based e-cigarettes, all of which are marketed by large tobacco companies: Vuse (Reynolds American), MarkTen XL (Altria), blu e-cigs (Fontem Ventures), and Logic (Japan Tobacco International, USA).  Importantly, Gottlieb indicated that these specific e-cigarettes make up “the majority of products sold to minors,” while noting that “the biggest youth use seems to be among cartridge-based e-cigarettes, and not open-tank vaping products.” (Emphasis added.)

The Agency has requested these five manufacturers submit within 60 days detailed plans describing how they will address and mitigate widespread youth use of their products.  For example, the FDA stated that such a plan may include:

  • Discontinuing sales to retail establishments that have been subject to an FDA civil monetary penalty for sale of tobacco products to minors within the prior 12 months;
  • Developing or strengthening any internal program in place to check on retailers, and reporting to FDA the name and address of retailers that have sold products to minors;
  • Eliminating online sales, whether through Internet storefronts controlled by the company or other retailers, or providing evidence to demonstrate that the company’s online sales practices do not contribute to youth use of e-cigarette products;
  • Revising current marketing practices to help prevent use by minors; and
  • Removing flavored products from the market until those products can be reviewed by FDA as part of a PMTA.

The requests that the companies eliminate all online sales and remove flavored products from the market are extremely onerous and effectively require the companies to cease sales of legal products.  FDA further noted that these actions are only examples of things the manufacturers might do to demonstrate FDA should continue to defer enforcement of the premarket review requirement with respect to their products, as discussed below, and encouraged the companies to “provide additional youth use prevention tools” for the Agency’s consideration.

Warning Letters to E-Liquid Manufacturers

Beyond illegal underage sales at the retail level, open-system vapor products have not been free from FDA scrutiny.  In May 2018, FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued 17 warning letters to e-liquid manufacturers for marketing products the agencies claimed were both misbranded under Sections 903(a)(1) and 903(a)(7) of the FDCA and false and misleading under Section 5 of the FTC Act, for being packaged and/or labeled in a manner that imitated “kid-friendly” foods such as apple juice, candy, whipped cream and cereal.  On August 23, 2018, FDA announced that all 17 companies that were warned have cooperated and have ceased all sales of the offending products.  FDA has now issued 12 additional warning letters to retailers for continuing to sell those e-liquids, making clear that any existing inventory of the misbranded products must be removed from commerce.

Drastic Action by FDA Could Destroy the Vapor Industry

a. Premarket Compliance Policy

Commissioner Gottlieb has made clear that the recent increase in youth use may force FDA to revisit its premarket review compliance policy, pursuant to which manufacturers of deemed noncombustible tobacco products (such as vapor products) that were on the market as of August 8, 2016, when the Deeming Rule went into effect, have until August 8, 2022 to submit PMTAs, and can remain on the market through that date.[4]  Moreover, under this compliance policy, if an application is timely submitted and accepted for scientific review, the subject product is permitted to remain on the market pending FDA review.  This compliance policy was first announced in July 2017 as part of the Agency’s comprehensive plan for tobacco and nicotine regulation, and extended the original compliance policy in the Deeming Rule, which only gave e-cigarette manufacturers until August 8, 2018 to submit PMTAs for their existing products.[5]

As noted, FDA’s letter to JUUL and the other large manufacturers indicates that it is seriously reconsidering its compliance policy, at least for cartridge-based e-cigarettes, due to widespread youth use (emphasis added):

To fulfill our public health mandate to address youth addiction to nicotine, FDA is reconsidering its compliance policy for submission of PMTAs for [the JUUL e-cigarette] and other similar products that were illegally sold by retailers during this blitz, including whether earlier enforcement of the premarket review provision might be warranted.

FDA further noted it is “seriously considering a policy change that would lead to the immediate removal of these flavored products from the market.”

Critically, Commissioner Gottlieb stated that if the five companies referenced above do not submit plans to combat youth use of their products, or if those plans are insufficient to address the problem, the companies “face a potential decision by FDA to reconsider extending the compliance dates for submission of premarket applications.”

If FDA does decide to modify the compliance policy for cartridge-based e-cigarettes because of their apparent unique impact on youth compared to other types of vapor products, such action does have precedent.  In its comprehensive plan, for example, FDA required deemed combustible products, such as cigars and hookah, on the market as of August 8, 2016 to submit premarket review applications by August 8, 2021, because of the known-health risks of combustible tobacco.

However, open-system vapor product manufacturers should be aware that Gottlieb did note in his statement that FDA’s “policy reconsiderations apply to the entire category” and that FDA is “also re-examining the enforcement discretion we currently exercise for other e-cig products currently on the market without authorization.”

While it remains unclear what, if anything, FDA might do with respect to its current compliance policy, any move to shorten the PMTA grace period for the vapor industry at-large will have devastating consequences not only for thousands of small businesses that would effectively be banned, but also for the public health.  These impacts were recently summarized in an amicus brief submitted by the Right to be Smoke-Free Coalition in the federal lawsuit filed by the public health groups challenging FDA’s compliance policy.  You can read about that lawsuit and the amicus brief, which makes clear that the vapor industry needs at least until August 2022 to prepare applications given the need for long-term clinical data, on our previous blog post here.

b. Flavored Products

Also of concern for the vapor industry is the potential targeting of flavored products, which the industry has argued are, in fact, appropriate for the protection of the public health (see here). It is important to first recognize that there is no such thing as an unflavored e-cigarette or vapor product. Unlike combustible cigarettes or other tobacco-containing products, there is simply no “natural” tobacco or other flavors inherent to e-liquids.  Rather, all flavors for these products are chemically synthesized and added to the base propylene glycol/vegetable glycerin solution.  Thus, unlike cigarettes, a ban on characterizing flavors would effectively result in a ban of all vapor products.

Moreover, numerous published studies demonstrate, and FDA has acknowledged, that flavored vapor products and e-liquids can help adult smokers reduce their cigarette use and/or switch completely to vapor products.  For example, a recently-released survey of almost 70,000 U.S. vapers found that 87.3% of respondents who quit smoking with e-cigarettes said that flavors were “extremely” or “very” important to their quit attempts.[6]

Remaining Compliant in a Rapidly Changing Regulatory Landscape

The new FDA enforcement actions and broader threats against the industry raise the possibility of dramatically altering the regulatory landscape for e-cigarettes and other vapor products.  FDA’s September 12 letters to the large manufacturers of cartridge-based e-cigarettes threaten to potentially end the premarket review compliance policy for those types of products, but it is not clear if FDA would extend this to all vapor product manufacturers.  Indeed, the stock market appears to have recognized this possibility, as legacy tobacco stocks rallied after FDA’s announcement.  Apparently, the markets have concluded that if adults are not going to be permitted to vape, they could return to traditional combustible tobacco cigarettes – the most harmful nicotine delivery system.  From our vantage point, and to the detriment of public health, it is hard to argue with this conclusion.

Accordingly, in view of FDA’s enforcement blitz and the Agency’s current focus on manufacturer advertising, marketing, and manufacturing practices, we recommend vapor product companies:

  • Start preparing premarket applications (including PMTAs) sooner rather than later (and attend FDA’s public hearing on October 22-23, 2018).
  • Work with retailers (both brick-and-mortar and online) that have age and photo-ID verification procedures that comply with requirements applicable to tobacco retailers, including requirements that:
    • the retailer checks the photo ID of everyone under age 27 who attempts to purchase any tobacco product;
    • the retailer only sells tobacco products to customers age 18 or older (consider whether age-gating may be appropriate for online retailers); and
    • the retailer does not sell tobacco products in vending machines unless in an adult-only facility.
  • Work with legal counsel to ensure that your product labeling and marketing would not cause the product to be misbranded or misleading (i.e., by imitating potentially “kid-appealing” foods).
  • Make sure your advertising and product labeling fully comply with the nicotine addiction warning (and other labeling requirements).
  • Comply with TCA requirements, including registration and listing for U.S. establishments, ingredient listing, and health document disclosures.
  • Do not introduce new products after August 8, 2016 without receiving FDA premarket authorization.
  • Comply with all sales and marketing restrictions, including use of any modified risk claims and the ban on free samples.
  • Prepare to be inspected by FDA and other authorities (sign up for our audit and inspection program here).
  • Consider developing an internal audit program to evaluate the procedures used by retail partners to avoid youth-access to your products.

If you have any questions about FDA’s announcements contact Azim Chowdhury (202.434.4230, chowdhury@khlaw.com). For more information on our Tobacco and E-vapor Practice in general, visit www.khlaw.com/evapor. Follow Keller and Heckman Tobacco and E-Vapor Partner Azim Chowdhury on Twitter.

[1]              See 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).

[2]              Christopher Groskopf, What Yelp Data Reveal About the Sudden Rise of Vape Shops in America, Quartz, (Feb. 10, 2016), https://qz.com/608469/what-yelp-data-tells-us-about-vaping/.

[3]              The first set of letters were sent on May 17, 2018 to J Well, of Paris, France, for Bo Starter Kit; YGT Investment LLC and 7 Daze LLC, of Baldwin Park, California, for Zoor Kit; Liquid Filling Solutions LLC, of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, for Myle Products; and SVR Inc., of Las Vegas, for SMPO Kit. Subsequently, in late May additional letters were sent to Myle Vape Inc. regarding Myle Products, and to MMS ECVD LLC regarding the Bo Starter Kit, to reflect additional relevant companies in the manufacturing and distribution chain.

[4]           Guidance for Industry: Extension of Certain Tobacco Product Compliance Deadlines Related to the Final Deeming Rule (Revised) (August 2017), available at: https://www.fda.gov/downloads/TobaccoProducts/Labeling/RulesRegulationsGuidance/UCM557716.pdf.

[5]              The original Deeming Rule compliance policy also had a sunset period that only permitted manufacturers who submitted timely PMTAs to continue to market those products for an additional year, i.e., until August 8, 2019. Unless an application was authorized during that year, it would have to be removed from the market at that time, and could only be re-introduced if it received FDA authorization.

[6]              Konstantinos F., M.D., MPH, et al., Patterns of flavored e-cigarette use among adult vapers in the United States: an internet survey (2018), at 6, 20.

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On May 1, 2018 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued 13 warning letters to companies that they claim misleadingly labeled or advertised nicotine-containing e-liquids as kid-friendly food products such as juice boxes, candies, and cookies.  Warning letters were issued to manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of eight products.

All of the warning letters included allegations of misbranding under Sections 903(a)(1) and 903(a)(7) of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) – both of which relate to labeling or advertising that is misleading or untrue in any particular – and Section 5 of the FTC Act for unfair or deceptive advertising.  Both the FDA and FTC alleged violations are based on the risk of confusion, especially by children, between the e-liquid products and foods that are marketed toward, or appealing to, children.

In some of the warning letters issued to distributors and retailers, FDA added allegations that the e-liquids were sold to minors in violation of Section 903(a)(7)(B) of the FDCA.  In one instance, FDA alleged that the company violated Section 201(rr)(4) of the FDCA – which bars the marketing of a tobacco product “in combination with any other article or product regulated” by FDA – because a combination pack of candy and e-liquid were offered together.  The warning letters also highlighted the potential harm that could result if nicotine-containing e-liquids are ingested by children, although the number of poison center calls regarding e-liquids has fallen dramatically since the Children’s Nicotine Poisoning Prevention Act went into effect in 2016.  That law requires “liquid nicotine containers” use child-resistant packaging just like prescription drugs, some over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, and other potentially hazardous products found in the home, pursuant to the Poison Packaging Prevention Act.

The issuance of the 13 warning letters comes about a week after FDA Commissioner Gottlieb announced that FDA (1) recently issued warning letters to 40 retailers for underage sales of JUUL products, (2) was in the midst of a “new blitz of retail establishments targeting youth sale violations”, (3) is seeking to end sale of JUUL products to minors, and (4) would examine the youth appeal of JUUL products.  FDA also requested JUUL Labs submit information regarding, among other things, its marketing, research studies, and how certain product features might appeal to different age groups.  While some have argued that the panic over JUUL, which appears to be based on anecdotal evidence and media reports, could actually adversely impact the public health, there is no doubt that FDA is committed to cracking down on underage sales and reducing youth appeal of tobacco products, including vapor products.

In light of the warning letters issued on April 24 and May 1 and the Agency’s interest in tobacco product flavors, it appears that FDA may be setting its sights on the elimination of flavored e-liquids, which have also been shown to help adult smokers transition to less harmful vaping alternatives, as part of its effort to curb the use of vapor products by youth. Of note, a recent study evaluating how young people use vapor products in the United Kingdom, where the products are actively promoted by the government as less harmful than cigarettes and as a way to quit smoking, found that most product experimentation does not turn into regular use, and that regular use of vapor products in young people who have never smoked remains very low.

Industry and other stakeholders interested in maintaining the availability in the U.S. of flavored e-liquids have until June 19, 2018 to submit comments to FDA’s Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.