By Sabrina Wong
This past Wednesday, the FDA’s policies regulating the sale of flavored e-cigarettes have officially been put into effect. Convenience stores and gas stations nationwide will not be permitted to sell e-cigarettes in flavors except for tobacco, mint, and menthol unless they either restrict minors from entering their stores altogether, or create a store segment where minors cannot enter.
FDA data shows that 86% of students obtain e-cigarettes from online or social sources, making the internet a particularly significant distribution channel for young people. Buying e-cigarettes online in bulk will be prohibited, and third-party age verification will be mandatory in order for customers to make their purchases. Convenience stores have pushed back against these regulatory actions, claiming that they depend on e-cigarette sales as an important source of revenue. They have expressed frustration towards the policies, citing statistics that show most students obtain e-cigarettes online rather than in stores.
With a staggering 73% market share, Juul Labs, Inc. leads the e-cigarette market. That also means it has the most to lose. Flavors other than tobacco, mint, and menthol account for 55% of Juul’s sales. Research done by the FDA finds that the attractive fruity and dessert flavors and the clever marketing tactics used by Juul only add to the appeal of e-cigarettes to youth. Around 3 million, or 20%, of high school students in the US use e-cigarettes. The FDA has stated that e-cigarettes could be taken out of the market completely if underage vaping levels do not decrease.
FDA chief Scott Gottlieb plans to step down from his position sometime next month—creating some uncertainty around the organization’s e-cigarette regulation project, which is ultimately aimed towards limiting underage usage. In the meantime, National Cancer Institute Director Ned Sharpless will be named acting FDA commissioner after Dr. Gottlieb’s exit. He shares similar concerns with Dr. Gottlieb and is supported by the White House in continuing the e-cigarette regulation overhaul effort.
The CDC reported that Juul sales increased by an astounding 641% in a single year, from 2.2 million Juuls sold in 2016 to 16.2 million sold in 2017. This statistic reflects how deeply Juul has infiltrated popular culture. The act of “vaping” has itself become a cultural phenomenon. Social media is undoubtedly one of the driving forces behind not only Juul’s explosive popularity, but also the sheer rate of growth at which usage has increased. The future of Juul and e-cigarette usage rests mainly on retailers’ compliance with the new regulations. The extent to which raising the age limit and enforcing regulatory action can drive down usage is limited. If “Juuling” continues to be a popular trend, the number of users may not necessarily decrease—at least until concrete evidence of its potentially harmful health effects begins to outweigh the social cachet it brings.