FDA restricts flavored tobacco products to combat youth access and appeal

Will Kosinski and Sami Sparber

In an effort to curb “astonishing” increases in smoking and vaping among young people, the Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday a series of restrictions on flavored tobacco products.

The angency reported a 78 percent increase in e-cigarette use among high schoolers and a 48 percent increase among middle schoolers in 2017 to 2018.

"These increases must stop,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. “Today, we advance our efforts to combat youth access and appeal with a policy framework that firmly and directly addresses the core of the
epidemic — flavors.”

The restrictions include a ban on menthol cigarettes, which are the only flavored cigarettes on the market and account for about one third of cigarette sales in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency also banned flavored cigars and is restricting in-store sales of flavored e-cigarette products, including Juul pods.

Youth smokers are more likely to use menthol cigarettes than any other age group, Gottlieb said.

“Young people who initiate tobacco use are more likely to initiate with flavored products,” said Alexandra Loukas, principal investigator of UT’s Tobacco Research and Evaluation Team. “Flavor masks the taste of tobacco, which is why young people initiate with menthols over non-flavored cigarettes.”

Loukas said the restrictions will hopefully lead to decreased tobacco use among young people.

“It’s likely that young people will not continue using tobacco products unless they are addicted to them,” Loukas said. “We conducted a study where we asked young people if they would continue using tobacco products if they were not flavored, and the overwhelming majority said they would not.”

In the study, conducted last year by Loukas and other UTHealth researchers, three-fourths of young users said they would no longer use the product if it was not flavored.

Sohil Maknojia, manager of Nueces Mart in West Campus, said the ban on menthols and flavored cigars is not likely to influence the store’s sales since the majority of its tobacco sales comes from other flavored products, such as Juul pods.

“Before Juul came, tobacco sales were really low; not even five percent of our sales,” Maknojia said. “(Juul) definitely caused an uptick in tobacco-related sales but mostly for Juul products. Now, there’s a constant stream of UT students who come and buy Juul pods.”

The agency’s restrictions don’t ban flavored e-cigarette products in stores, but Juul Labs announced on Nov. 13 they stopped accepting retail orders for its flavored pods, except for mint, menthol and tobacco.

The FDA said it will allow stores to continue selling flavored e-cigarette products, but only from closed off-areas that are inaccessible to minors. It is already illegal in the U.S. to sell cigarettes and e-cigarettes to anyone under 18.

Loukas said the restrictions will likely be contested by tobacco companies and could take years to implement.

“Big Tobacco companies will fight the FDA every step of the way,” Loukas said. “It will be interesting to see if, in the time before these policies go into effect, tobacco companies will innovate some way to come up with a product that still had flavors and could get around the regulations to maintain their business.”