FDA, DOJ Launch Multi-Agency Task Force to Address Illegal E-Cigarettes

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The new task force highlights a stronger government focus on curbing the risks of e-cigarettes for young people, especially after sustained calls for stricter action on the public health issue by lawmakers and the public.

In response to the concerning trend of e-cigarette use among youth, the US government is taking a major step to fight the illegal sale and distribution of the devices. A new federal task force will combine the resources of multiple agencies to investigate, prosecute, and seize illegal e-cigarettes, of which pose unique and significant harm to the demographic.

Colorful disposable e-cigarettes / YarikL - stock.adobe.com

Colorful disposable e-cigarettes / YarikL - stock.adobe.com

What's the Issue?

Yesterday, the US Department of Justice and the FDA announced the establishment of an interagency federal task force spanning the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the US Marshals Service, the US Postal Inspection Service, and the Federal Trade Commission to curb the illegal distribution and sale of e-cigarettes.1 In the coming weeks and months, additional agencies may join the cause.

By uniting all available criminal and civil tools in an “all government” approach, the task force hopes to address nicotine addiction among American youth. The team will uphold the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act of 2009, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, as amended by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, and other authorities, to investigate and prosecute new criminal, civil, seizure, and forfeiture actions associated with e-cigarettes.1

Why it Matters

In recent years, e-cigarette and nicotine companies have ramped up marketing tactics to appeal to young people. Manufacturers, distributors, and retailers promote candy- and fruit-flavored vapes, bright and colorful designs,2 and packaging meant to be easily concealed from parents and teachers. Although e-cigarette use among young people is down from 5.3 million in 2019 to 2.1 million in 2023, vaping among the population still represents a significant public health issue, as the practice exacts unique health dangers.3 The 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that 10% of high school students and nearly 5% of middle school students reported using e-cigarettes, with 1 in 4 reporting daily use.4

  • According to the CDC, nicotine can cause irreversible harm to the developing adolescent brain, including the formation of brain circuits that control attention and learning.5 Further, the effect of nicotine on developing brains may also make users more susceptible to addiction to other drugs, such as cigarettes.
  • E-cigarette users are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression compared to people who have never used e-cigarettes, according to a 2019 study published in JAMA that included nearly 30,000 e-cigarette users.6
  • Unlike other countries, there are no policies in the US to regulate nicotine levels in e-cigarettes. Puff Bar, a type of disposable e-cigarette favored by teens, can contain a nicotine concentration as strong as 5%.7 This is more than twice the legal limit in the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
  • Factors like device wattage, puffing style, and nicotine concentration across products all affect how much nicotine is delivered with each puff; most times, users have no way to measure how much nicotine they’re inhaling.

Expert Commentary

  • “Unauthorized e-cigarettes and vaping products continue to jeopardize the health of Americans—particularly children and adolescents—across the country,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer in a news release.1 “This interagency task force is dedicated to protecting Americans by combatting the unlawful sale and distribution of these products. And the establishment of this task force makes clear that vigorous enforcement of the tobacco laws is a government-wide priority.”
  • “I’m glad my calls for greater enforcement against unauthorized e-cigarettes have been heeded and that more resources are on the way to address the flood of illegal products entering the market,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in response to the creation of the task force.8 “But new partnerships only matter if our federal agencies use their enforcement tools instead of cowering to the tobacco industry’s lawyers. Thus far, our agencies have failed to prevent a wave of youth e-cigarette addiction. I hope this brings meaningful change—the health of our kids depends on it.”
  • “We look forward to sharing our experience with this rapidly changing, multi-billion-dollar market through this important task force,” said Samuel A.A. Levine, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, which releases reports about cigarette, smokeless tobacco, and e-cigarette marketing, in a news release.1

In-Depth Insights

  • Although the FDA has only authorized 23 specific tobacco-flavored e-cigarette products and devices to be lawfully marketed and sold in the US, the agency has simultaneously issued more than 1100 warning letters to manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers for illegally selling and/or distributing unauthorized new tobacco products.1
  • In December of this past year, the FDA confiscated over 1.4 million illegal e-cigarettes, including popular youth-oriented brands like Elf Bar and Funky Republic. The FDA discovered the e-cigarettes were deliberately mislabeled as toys, shoes, or other items to sneak past customs.9
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Chair Senator Durbin, will convene a hearing on June 12 to address the lack of enforcement against unauthorized e-cigarettes.10 The hearing follows Senator Durbin’s ongoing push for stricter regulations.

Extra Reading

  • Justice Department and FDA announce federal multi-agency task force to curb the distribution and sale of illegal e-cigarettes (FDA)
  • New federal task force aims to crack down on illicit e-cigarettes (The Hill)
  • FDA, Justice Department crack down on sale of illegal e-cigarettes by forming new task force (CNN)

READ MORE: Substance Use Disorder Resource Center

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References
1. Justice Department and FDA announce federal multi-agency task force to curb the distribution and sale of illegal e-cigarettes. News release. FDA. June 10, 2024. Accessed June 11, 2024. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/justice-department-and-fda-announce-federal-multi-agency-task-force-curb-distribution-and-sale?utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery
2. Gomes MN, Reid JL, Hammond D. The effect of branded versus standardized e-cigarette packaging and device designs: an experimental study of youth interest in vaping products. Public Health. 2024;230:223-230. doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2024.02.001
3. Glantz S, Jeffers A, Winickoff JP. Nicotine addiction and intensity of e-cigarette use by adolescents in the US, 2014 to 2021. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(11):e2240671. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.40671
4. Results from the annual national youth tobacco survey. News release. CDC. November 2, 2023. Acccessed June 11, 2024. https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/youth-and-tobacco/results-annual-national-youth-tobacco-survey
5. E-cigarette use among youth. Fact sheet. CDC. May 15, 2024. Accessed June 11, 2024. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/e-cigarettes/youth.html#:~:text=In%20the%20United%20States%2C%20youth,5
6. Obisesan OH, Mirbolouk M, Osei AD, et al. Association between e-cigarette use and depression in the behavioral risk factor surveillance system, 2016-2017. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(12):e1916800. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.16800
7. Nicotine and the young brain. Fact sheet. Truth initiative. June 8, 2022. Accessed June 11, 2024. https://truthinitiative.org/research-resources/harmful-effects-tobacco/nicotine-and-young-brain
8. Durbin reacts to creation of federal multi-agency task force to combat sale of illegal e-cigarette products. News release. US Senate Committee on the Judiciary. June 10, 2024. Accessed June 11, 2024. https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/press/releases/durbin-reacts-to-creation-of-federal-multi-agency-task-force-to-combat-sale-of-illegal-e-cigarette-products
9. Musa A. 1.4 milion illegal e-cigarettes seized as US government bears down on unathorized sales. CNN. December 13, 2024. https://www.cnn.com/2023/12/14/health/fda-e-cigarette-seizure/index.html
10. Weixel, N. New federal task force aims to crack down on illicit e-cigarettes. The Hill. June 10, 2024. https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/4714061-new-federal-task-force-illicit-e-cigarettes-sale-distribution/
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