Five Takeaways From AP’s Report on Chinese Disposable E-Cigarettes

June 27, 2023by Matthew Perrone, Associated Press
Five Takeaways From AP’s Report on Chinese Disposable E-Cigarettes
Elf Bar and Esco Bar disposable vaping devices are displayed, Monday, June 26, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

How good a job is the Food and Drug Administration doing in its crackdown on kid-friendly electronic cigarette flavors? The Associated Press sought to answer that question by looking at tightly controlled sales data.

The AP obtained the data from the analytics firm IRI, which tracks barcode scanner sales from convenience stores, gas stations and other retailers. A person not authorized to share it gave access to the AP on condition of anonymity.

The AP found that the FDA has been unable to keep up with a flood of illegal disposable e-cigarettes from China. Their influx has forced the agency to try to eliminate thousands of illegal products sold by under-the-radar importers and distributors.

Here are five takeaways from the AP’s reporting:

E-CIGARETTES KEEP FLOODING INTO THE U.S. WITHOUT FDA PERMISSION

The number of unique e-cigarettes sold in the U.S. has mushroomed to over 9,000 since 2020, when the FDA began restricting vaping flavors and requiring manufacturers to request permission to stay on the market.

The FDA says it has reviewed millions of vaping applications, rejecting 99% of them because they have not been shown to benefit public health. That should mean fewer e-cigarettes being sold in U.S. stores, but hundreds of new varieties appear each month, flouting FDA rules.

ALMOST ALL OF THE NEW PRODUCTS ARE FLAVORED DISPOSABLE E-CIGARETTES FROM CHINA

The increase in e-cigarettes has been almost exclusively driven by Chinese-manufactured disposables, with more than 5,800 disposables currently being sold in U.S. stores, according to the IRI data. That number is up more than 1,500% from 356 disposables available in early 2020.

Most products mimic the designs and flavors of a few large brands, including Elf Bar, Puff Bar and Esco Bar. But counterfeiting is a big problem across the industry.

LOW-COST CHINESE MANUFACTURING HAS LOWERED THE BAR FOR NEW VAPING BRANDS

Manufacturers in the Chinese city of Shenzhen allow customers to order tens of thousands of e-cigarettes for as little as $2 each. Designs, artwork and flavors can be customized. Many companies promise to ship orders in two or three weeks.

FDA’S FORMER TOP TOBACCO OFFICIAL WARNED THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ABOUT DISPOSABLES

In late 2019, the FDA’s top tobacco official warned officials in President Donald Trump’s administration not to exempt disposables from a rule restricting fruit and candy flavors that can appeal to kids.

The FDA banned those flavors from reusable vaping systems like Juul in January 2020, amid a surge in youth vaping. But the regulation specifically exempted disposable e-cigarettes, leading to the explosion in new products on the market today.

FDA’s former tobacco director, Mitch Zeller, told The Associated Press that White House officials made the decision without his input. When Zeller protested that teenagers would simply shift to using flavored disposables, he was told there was no appeal.

CHINESE MANUFACTURERS AREN’T SUBJECT TO REGULAR FDA INSPECTIONS DUE TO INCOMPLETE RULES

Congress gave the FDA the power to regulate tobacco companies in 2009, with the aim of scrutinizing industry ingredients and manufacturing. But currently, only U.S. manufacturing sites are required to register with the agency for routine inspections.

That means the FDA has little visibility into the conditions at Chinese facilities that produce nearly all the e-cigarettes sold in the U.S. today.

The FDA could bring foreign vaping manufacturers under routine oversight, but it must finalize rules and standards for how e-cigarettes and other tobacco products are made. Congress instructed the FDA to write those regulations more than 14 years ago, but the agency only released a draft version earlier this year.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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