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14th of November 2018

Economy



FDA set to clamp down on flavoured ecigarettes

The booming ecigarette industry is bracing for big curbs in the US, the world’s largest vaping market, as Washington prepares to follow through on a threat to clamp down on which products can be sold. 

Regulators are planning to ban most flavoured versions of the product in shops and petrol stations across the country, according to people familiar with the matter. An announcement is expected as early as next week. 

The proposed crackdown is a response to concerns that teenage vaping has reached “ epidemic” levels, and also includes plans to impose new rules on internet sales, including age verification. 

Under the Food and Drug Administration’s proposals, only menthol and mint-flavoured ecigarettes would be permitted in convenience stores. Other flavours, which range from strawberry to bubblegum, are seen as appealing to young people and blamed for getting them addicted. 

The proposed restrictions threaten to upend the business model of the industry leader Juul Labs. The San Francisco start-up, which has expanded rapidly since its 2015 launch, controls about 70 per cent of the US ecigarette market. The company’s most recent round of funding valued it at $15bn. 

The clampdown could also pose problems for big tobacco. Ecigarette sales represent only a fraction of the companies’ sales, yet they have invested heavily in alternatives to traditional cigarettes to safeguard the future of an industry whose main product is in terminal decline in the west. 

Scott Gottlieb, head of the FDA, threatened in September to impose hefty restrictions. At the time, he gave the industry until this weekend to set out how to combat usage among young people. Since then, leading companies have met Mr Gottlieb to discuss their plans to limit underage use.

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The planned action, first reported by the Washington Post on Thursday, suggested executives might have been unsuccessful in convincing the FDA to take a softer stance. It was not immediately clear if the industry would make further concessions before the submission deadline to appease the regulator. Details would be provided in the announcement as early as next week.

The FDA’s apparent reluctance to enact an outright ban — in particular, its proposal to continue to allow online sales and in-store sales of menthol and mint versions — is a sign it still sees benefits to public health from ecigarettes, if targeted at longtime smokers and not new users.

Flavoured versions would still be available in specialist outlets under the plans.

Policymakers globally are fretting over the best regulatory approach to ecigarettes. The industry points to research that they are safer than traditional cigarettes, arguing that converting existing smokers saves lives. Health campaigners counter that ecigarettes are still addictive since they contain nicotine.

Altria, maker of Marlboro cigarettes, last month pre-empted the FDA clampdown when it said it would stop selling most flavoured vaping products in the US.

Convenience stores and gas stations have already been targeted by the FDA. Stores run by Walmart, Walgreens and 7-Eleven, as well as BP, Shell and Mobil petrol stations, were among 1,300 outlets to receive warning letters earlier this year after an undercover investigation found evidence of sales to underage customers.

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