CHICAGO – The FDA’s latest gauntlet thrown down over electronic cigarettes and flavors that potentially appeal to youth has received a mixed reaction from retailers and others in the industry. Few were surprised by the agency’s recent round of warning letters and threatened action, but most are concerned that responsible retailers could be penalized.
In a sweeping move that saw the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issue 1,300 warning letters and fines to both brick-and-mortar and online retailers on Sept. 12, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb seemed to draw a bright, red circle around e-cigarette flavors, especially those with candy and cookie themes.
“I believe certain flavors are one of the principal drivers of the youth appeal of these products,” said Gottlieb in a statement released Sept. 12. “While we remain committed to advancing policies that promote the potential of e-cigarettes to help adult smokers move away from combustible cigarettes, that work can’t come at the expense of kids.”
Retailers contacted by CSP Daily News responded with little surprise. “I believe this is one of many new initiatives from the FDA with the goal of helping create a healthier population from Scott Gottlieb’s viewpoint,” said Lonnie McQuirter, operator of the Minneapolis-based 36 Lyn Refuel Station. “His Twitter indicates that this is an issue he’s ready to act on and that he is not afraid to impose new policies against tobacco and their alternatives. While it may be some time off, I think nicotine reduction is becoming more and more a probable policy from the FDA.”
An executive with a West Coast chain questioned the FDA’s central argument regarding flavors and underage users.
“It’s a bit disingenuous, in my opinion, to reason that flavors are the driving force bringing an underaged population into the category,” the executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There has historically been underaged users of nicotine products, well before flavored vaping products hit the market. We see the same flavor proliferation in other product categories (beverages, snack products, etc.), so to make flavors the spotlighted villain in this discussion is a bit disingenuous.
“Don’t get me wrong: I’m 100% against targeting underaged users with flavors or packaging, but I see through our sales data that of-age users are purchasing these products.”
Although critical of the FDA, the operator said retailers shouldn’t be let off the hook: “I’m very concerned there are other retailers allowing this product to get into the hands of underaged users. It’s very irresponsible but also not reason for the FDA to potentially penalize responsible retailers. The same way some manufacturers are very responsible in working with the FDA (and others potentially less so), the retailer community is the same.”
Other industry voices have chimed in on the discussion. “We are not at all surprised by the FDA’s announcement as it has been focused on this topic for quite some time and has specifically targeted sales of Juul [branded e-cigarettes] to minors in the recent past,” said Bonnie Herzog, managing director of consumer equity research for Wells Fargo Securities, New York, in her recent newsletter. “Given Juul’s strong appeal to youth and the FDA’s comments around flavors, we believe Juul is most at risk. Given the market’s overarching concerns about Juul’s impact on cigarettes, especially Marlboro, we think a potential ban on Juul would be positive for Altria.”
Herzog said her concern is that the FDA will arrive at “an appropriate level of regulation of tobacco flavors as they are an important tool to get adult smokers to move down the continuum of risk from ‘harmful’ cigarettes to ‘less harmful’ e-cigarettes, vaping and heat-not-burn products.”
Ultimately, she expected the e-cigarette companies to comply with the FDA’s orders and believes Richmond, Va.-based Altria Group Inc. is well-positioned in light of this unfolding news, because it already follows strict protocols with regard to youth access and has limited and mature flavor profiles.
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