FDA Says a 'Public Health Tragedy' Is Underway as Teen E-Cigarette Use Remains Popular

The Food and Drug Administration says that a "public health tragedy" is underway as teen e-cigarette use — with Juul leading in popularity — continues

Vaping Increases Among Teens
Photo: Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald/Getty

The Food and Drug Administration says that a “public health tragedy” is underway as teen e-cigarette use continues, but that they are working on plans of action with the major manufactures, including Juul.

After demanding in September that e-cigarette manufacturers submit detailed plans to curb the illegal teen usage, the FDA says they’ve met with the top five companies and will roll out their proposals in November.

Some of the plans include better systems to stop the illegal sales of e-cigarettes to people under 18, limiting the availability of flavored smoke pods and raising the overall tobacco-buying age to 21.

“We are committed to taking the necessary steps to fully confront the epidemic of e-cigarette use that has gripped the nation’s youth and set in motion an accelerating epidemic. I’ve stated clearly, all options are on the table,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in statement on Wednesday.

This comes as growing scientific evidence shows that e-cigarettes leave harmful toxins in the body. A study published in the journal Pediatrics looked at the effects of e-cigarettes on teens’ bodies.

“We found a lot of the same chemicals in the urine of these teenagers that we see in cigarettes. Much lower levels than we see in traditional cigarettes, but higher than what we expect to find from just environmental exposures,” Dr. Martin Rubinstein, the lead author of the study and a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, told Today. “The five main chemicals that we found are either shown to be cancer-causing, or thought to be cancer-causing, either in humans or animals.”

The Juul vaping system in Washington, DC.
Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty

Rubinstein said they don’t yet know the long-term effects of e-cigarettes, but researchers are not optimistic.

“We don’t, so even the fact that these were lower levels is still concerning,” he said. “We don’t know that these kids will continue using these for many years, but should they, we expect to see some of these same negative outcomes that we see with cigarettes.”

But Juul, which controls 74 percent of the market for e-cigarettes, refutes the study, saying that because the teens are self-reporting which products they use it’s not possible to point to one as the culprit. Ashley Gold, Juul’s chief administrative officer, said that they don’t want teens using their products, but highlighted the research that points to e-cigarettes as a less-harmful way to smoke.

“There’s growing scientific consensus that there’s significantly less toxicants from e-cigarettes than cigarettes,” she told Today. “We know that cigarettes kill half of the people who use them. The potential of vapor technology is to deliver nicotine through an aerosolized form, and avoid combustion, and thereby avoid or significantly reduce the harm resulting from cigarette smoking.”

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But, Gold claimed she was unable to say if Juul has any long-term effects.

“I can’t talk about the safety of the product from a regulatory perspective,” she told investigative reporter Cynthia McFadden. “Juul’s been on the market since 2015. We have data from the time the product was on the market to now, and we will collect data over time.”

Gold did agree, though, that nicotine is addictive, and they don’t want teens using Juuls.

“No there’s no dispute, we’re not disputing that,” she said. “It’s critically important that youth are educated about the harms of nicotine, what we don’t know about e-cigarettes and why. These are not products for them. We agree 100 percent with that.”

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