Tomorrow, the FDA is expected to announce the strictest regulation of cigarettes sales in decades. Spurred by the data showing that nearly 8% of high school students are current cigarette smokers, the FDA will announce that from now on, with just a few exceptions, cigarettes may not be sold in any convenience store or gas station. Online sales of cigarettes will still be allowed, but it will be subject to advanced age verification procedures. The only stores that will be allowed to sell cigarettes without restriction will be those which are only open to adults (or which establish an area that is only open to adults).
The FDA said it was forced to take this drastic action because it has evidence that: "a new generation is being addicted to nicotine, and we can’t tolerate that."
The tobacco companies intentionally make cigarettes more addictive by adding ammonia to the product, which enhances nicotine absorption. Cigarettes are the most effective known product to deliver nicotine in a pattern that is capable of quickly initiating and then sustaining addiction.
According to the CDC, every day more than 3,200 youth smoke their first cigarette. It has been estimated that it only takes four to five cigarettes for a youth to become addicted to smoking. One out of every two long-term addicted smokers will die prematurely, primarily from lung cancer, lung disease, heart disease, stroke, or other cancers.
The Rest of the Story
Actually, I got it wrong.
The FDA is not banning the sale of most cigarettes at convenience stores; it is banning the sale of most fake (electronic) cigarettes at convenience stores.
Convenience stores and gas stations can continue to sell real cigarettes - which, despite lower smoking rates, continue to addict a new generation to nicotine - but they will no longer be able to sell electronic cigarettes (with only minor exceptions).
Somehow, we have completely lost all sense of public health perspective. Every argument that the FDA is making in justifying a ban on the sale of electronic cigarettes in convenience stores and gas stations applies even more strongly for real tobacco cigarettes: you know, the ones that kill hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. Something is terribly wrong with our sense of perspective when we take the fake cigarettes off the shelf but allow the real ones to remain.
So let me attempt to correct this skewed perspective.
First, we need to recognize that the problem of youth addiction to electronic cigarettes is not a broad problem of youth becoming addicted to e-cigarettes; it is a very specific and narrow problem of youth becoming addicted to Juul. It is one specific product that is causing the problem.
Other than Juul, all other closed system electronic cigarettes do not have high addiction potential because they are actually quite poor at delivering nicotine. Specifically, there is no nicotine spike in the blood, and the nicotine level drops off quite slowly. In contrast, the Juul uses a specially formulated nicotine salt that is absorbed much more rapidly into the bloodstream, and the pattern of blood nicotine levels from Juuling mimics that of a real cigarette. Youth are becoming addicted to nicotine not because they are vaping generally, but because there is an epidemic of Juul use occurring in middle schools and high schools across the nation.
However, just four days ago, Juul announced that it would voluntarily stop selling flavored Juul products in all convenience stores and gas stations. In fact, Juul has agreed to stop selling flavored Juul products in any brick-and-mortar establishment. These products will only be available online and with age verification procedures.
So this sweeping action by the FDA is not necessary. It will not result in the elimination of flavored Juul sales from convenience stores because that is already occurring.
So the rest of the story is that what the FDA's action is doing is to make it much more difficult for adults who have quit smoking to continue to stay smoke-free using their favorite brands of electronic cigarettes, which will be taken off the shelves. Youth will not be able to purchase flavored Juul products from stores, but that was going to happen anyway. The other e-cigarettes that are being sold at these stores (i.e., products other than Juul) have low nicotine addiction potential. It makes no sense to take them off the shelves but to allow real cigarettes, which have extremely high addiction potential, to remain available for sale and distribution to the 3,200 youth who try these products every day.
I believe this action will have a net negative impact on the public's health because it will almost certainly result in many ex-smokers returning to smoking as their products disappear from convenience store shelves.
What the FDA should have done is to deal directly with Juul and demand that they voluntarily remove their flavored products from the shelf and bolster their age verification procedures for online purchases. But since Juul has already agreed to this, there is no need for this drastic regulation, especially because cigarette sales are being left unencumbered.
One might argue that the reason that Juul agreed to remove their flavored products from the shelf is that they anticipated this FDA regulation. If that is the case, then perhaps the threat of regulation was successful in achieving this result. But now that Juul has agreed to take most of their products off the shelves, the FDA should not proceed with the regulation. Unless it is sincerely concerned about youth becoming addicted to nicotine, in which case it should ban all cigarette sales in brick-and-mortar establishments that are not restricted to adults.