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FDA To Take Action Against Companies That Sell Vape Pens To Teens


This week, the FDA plans to roll out new enforcement actions against companies that sell vape pens and accessories to teenagers. In the past week and a half, the FDA sent warning letters about this popular device called JUUL and the pods that go inside it. A JUUL basically looks like a USB drive. And the pods you put inside deliver vaporized liquid in kid-friendly flavors like mango, even gummy worms. But because the devices don't have the same cancer-causing chemicals as, quote, "combustible tobacco," which is industry-speak for cigarettes, some see vaping as safer than smoking. I asked FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb if that's true.

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: I think that there's a presumption in the marketplace that these don't have all the risks associated with lighting tobacco on fire, smoking traditional cigarettes. I think we at FDA believe that there's probably some truth to that. But we need to demonstrate that through an appropriate regulatory process.

MARTIN: So you don't know the answer - we don't know the answer yet to whether or not these are a safer alternative than cigarettes.

GOTTLIEB: I think that there's a strong presumption that they are. If we were to migrate all adult smokers onto e-cigarettes, we would have a net public health benefit. You know, you have to remember with these products, you're still delivering a vapor into the lungs. There's still the potential for toxins in these vapors. One of the things we're going to be putting out soon are guidelines on how companies can test these products to establish how harmful are they to the lungs, if they're harmful at all.

MARTIN: What kind of regulatory structures are you trying to put in place around e-cigarettes?

GOTTLIEB: Well, there's two ways we can look at e-cigarettes. One is as a tobacco product. The other is as a drug product. For example, a company wanted to market this as an over-the-counter pharmaceutical product or as a prescription pharmaceutical product designed for smoking cessation. And we're trying to regulate nicotine and combustible cigarettes to render them minimally or nonaddictive so that smokers will migrate off of combustible cigarettes.

When we look at that question, we'll say, OK, maybe this can help five currently addicted adult smokers quit. But for every five adult smokers that quit, one kid's going to become addicted to nicotine. And we might say on balance, that's not a trade that we would be willing to make from a regulatory standpoint.

So those are the questions that we're asking. We sent out a whole series of warning letters to retailers that were selling some of these products to underage kids. So we have robust enforcement tools to try to crack down on the youth use, which concerns us a great deal. And we have additional enforcement actions that we're going to take.

MARTIN: What do you say to people who are upset that this is taking so long?

GOTTLIEB: I think relative to how that regulatory process works and the steps we need to go through as a matter of law, we have been moving pretty vigorously.

What's happening is this has become a cult fad. And we don't know if we're at the tail end of popularity or this is going to continue and we're going to see a whole bunch of young people become addicted.

MARTIN: What do you say to parents who have convinced themselves that this is a safer alternative for their kids?

GOTTLIEB: I think that's part of the problem in some quarters. And I'm a parent of young kids. And I talk to parents who have kids, who they're worried their kids are using these products. And I think there is a view that among some - and it's anecdotal - that people feel, well, at least my child's not smoking.

And what I would say to that parent is no kid should be using any nicotine-related product. Nicotine's not a completely benign substance. It's addictive. It rewires the adolescent brain. And I think that they need to be equally vigilant, whether it's an e-cigarette that their child might be using or a cigar or a combustible cigarette. No child should be using any tobacco product.

MARTIN: Scott Gottlieb, he's the commissioner of the FDA in our studios here in Washington. Thank you for your time.

GOTTLIEB: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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