Commentary: The FDA Must Partner with State AGs to Crack Down on Illegal Vapes and Keep Kids Safe

by Gerard Scimeca


Millions of kids and teens in America are falling victim to an insidious campaign to get them hooked on illegal, disposable vapes that are made in China and intentionally marketed in youth-enticing flavors.

After years of inaction, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finally said it will make compliance and enforcement against these products a priority. FDA’s decision to start taking action to stop the rising tide of illegal disposable vapes in youth-enticing flavors that are flooding our country from China is an important step forward but letters won’t be enough to get these products off our shelves.

A good start would be the FDA teaming up with the state attorneys general who are gathering in Nashville this week to get illegal, potentially-lethal disposable vapes in youth-enticing flavors off store shelves.

Parents, teachers, and school resource officers have become all too familiar with brands like Elf Bar, Breeze, Puff Bar, Esco Bars, and countless others. These illegal products have poured into the United States over the past three years after the FDA banned cartridge-based vapes in most flavors, while giving disposable vapes in flavors like “cotton candy” a pass. That loophole created the impetus for the disposable youth vaping epidemic we have today.

According to the most recent Annual Youth Tobacco survey, more than 2.5 million middle and high school students reported using an e-cigarette in the past 30 days. Dr. Brian King, the director for the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, recently stated that “science clearly shows that a majority of youth who use e-cigarettes report that the products they are using are disposable and flavored.”

The vast majority – at least 90 percent – of these illegal vapes are manufactured in China, where they are banned domestically. The Chinese government knows they are harmful, but they have no problem allowing their manufacturers to ship them to the United States. There is no way of knowing what these vapes might contain as they are unauthorized and unregulated, and that is where this public health crisis becomes even more dangerous.

China is a driving force behind the fentanyl epidemic that is gripping communities across the country. They’re shipping precursors to Mexico where the lethal drug is finished and trafficked into the United States. More than 5,000 children and teens lost their lives to overdoses involving fentanyl over the past two decades. Around 1,550 of those deaths occurred in 2021, 30 times more deaths than 2013. Even by FDA Commissioner Robert Califf’s own admission, it is no surprise that fentanyl is now ending up in illegal vapes.

One teen was hospitalized in Chattanooga earlier this year after unknowingly using a disposable, flavored vape laced with fentanyl. Sadly, he is not alone. There have been numerous reports of students accidentally consuming fentanyl slipped into illegal vapes. After coming under pressure from a wide swath of advocates, law enforcement officers, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the FDA is finally waking up to the threat.

The agency recently handed down three consecutive enforcement actions targeting illegal, disposable, flavored, foreign-made vapes. “Protecting our nation’s youth from tobacco products – including disposable e-cigarettes – is a top priority for the FDA,” said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, M.D. “We’re committed to holding all players in the supply chain – not just manufacturers but also retailers and distributors – accountable to the law.” It’s the right message, but the FDA has to do more.

In testimony in front of Congress, Commissioner Califf stated that this issue is an “all of government issue.” The Biden administration and the FDA have an opportunity and an imperative to enlist “all of government” at the local and state levels and enlist the partnership of state AGs, as the top law enforcement officers in their states, in cracking down on illegal, foreign-made vapes.

As state AGs gather in Nashville, the FDA and Biden administration owe it to the American people to make sure state AGs have the guidance, resources, and support they need to get illegal vapes off shelves. That includes providing more clarity to local enforcement agencies, retailers, and distributors about what products are illegal and what can be done to eliminate them. This fight is going to require an “all of government” approach, but it is up to the FDA and the Biden administration to finish the job to protect our kids.

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Gerard Scimeca is the Chairman of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy.

Editor’s note:  Consumer Action for a Strong Economy is an advertiser with The Tennessee Star.



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