Battling an ‘epidemic’ of e-cigarette sales to minors

This column appeared in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during September-October, 2018

Battling an ‘epidemic’ of e-cigarette use by minors

Stop marketing and selling e-cigarettes to teens!

Via warnings and thousands of dollars in fines, that’s the strong message U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb sent out on Sept. 12. Among those receiving the message were Minnesota stores that the FDA found had sold these dangerous products to teenagers.

The 16 stores in Minnesota the FDA warned included a BP Station in Plymouth, a SuperAmerica store in Garrison, and the E-Cig Vape Lounge in Excelsior. The SuperAmerica store on 90th Street in Bloomington was fined. I contacted each of them; their managers did not want to comment.

The warnings and fines are part of a broader campaign to challenge what the FDA sees as an “epidemic” in teen use of e-cigarettes.

Gottlieb wrote: “I use the word epidemic with great care. E-cigs have become an almost ubiquitous — and dangerous — trend among teens. The disturbing and accelerating trajectory of use we’re seeing in youth, and the resulting path to addiction, must end.”

The FDA is clear: “Smoking remains the number one preventable cause of death in America, killing nearly half a million people a year. If we aren’t successful in more sharply reducing the rate of addiction to tobacco, then we’ll continue to see this needless death and disease.”

Gottlieb sounds angry in this section of the press release: “I’ve been warning the e-cigarette industry for more than a year that they needed to do much more to stem the youth trends. In my view, they treated these issues like a public relations challenge rather than seriously considering their legal obligations, the public health mandate, and the existential threat to these products. And the risks mounted.”

Given the FDA’s dissatisfaction with the e-cig manufacturers and retailers, the Sept. 12 press release announced: “In the largest coordinated enforcement effort in the FDA’s history, the agency issued more than 1,300 warning letters and civil money penalty complaints (fines) to retailers who illegally sold JUUL and other e-cigarette products to minors during a nationwide, undercover blitz of brick-and-mortar and online stores this summer.”

Michael Felberbaum, press officer at the FDA, told me that these actions came after trained minors were sent this year to stores throughout the U.S. The goal was to see if stores would sell them e-cigarettes. Federal law prohibits such sales.

The FDA warned stores that made an illegal sale once. Stores that did this two or more times were fined. To see a complete list of stores that were warned or fined, go to and click on “Retailers who received 1300+ warning letters and civil money complaints (fines).”

Felberbaum explained that the fines ranged from $279 to $11,182. He said stores that make five or more sales to minors over a certain time period may lose their license to sell tobacco. He also explained that the FDA plans to send minors back to stores over the next year to see if the stores are continuing to sell e-cigs to them.

The FDA press release notes that the warnings and fines are part of a larger campaign to deal with the e-cig epidemic. The FDA:

—Asked leading e-cig manufacturers to “come back to the FDA in 60 days with robust plans on how they’ll convincingly address the widespread use of their products by minors, or we’ll revisit the FDA’s exercise of enforcement discretion for products currently on the market.”

—Plans “a hard look at the manufacturer’s own internet storefronts and distribution practices.”

—Is creating “a national campaign to warn teenagers of the dangers of nicotine and e-cigarette use. This public campaign will bring these public health messages to online sites that we know teenagers access, and even to high school bathrooms.”

The FDA’s announcement is here:

As a parent and grandparent, I’m delighted by the FDA’s actions. I hope families build on the FDA’s efforts. As the FDA notes: “Nicotine isn’t a benign substance. This is especially true when it comes to children, and the effects that nicotine has on a developing brain.” — Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher, parent and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at or @JoeNathan9249.