12 Mar How the FDA Might Change Vaping Forever
Let’s take a moment to talk about Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s FDA (Food and Drug Administration) shall we? It’s little secret he’s been aggressive in his attempts to regulate vaping, but his comments last month in regards to Juul Labs and Altria seemed to have “upped the ante,” so to speak, and even with Gottlieb announcing his resignation from the top spot at the FDA, those comments warrant some examination, and the potential the FDA has to radically change the face of vaping bears discussion. Let’s get into it.
First Things First: What Went Down Between Gottlieb, Juul Labs, and Altria?
For context, we’ll first need to head back to August of 2018, when the FDA was contemplating removing all e-cigarettes from shelves to “review their safety.” The FDA eventually settled on granting a reprieve to last until August 8th, 2022. At that point, manufacturers breathed a sigh of relief, and many vaping aficionados took the stance that Gottlieb would, in the future, be amenable to coming to some reasonable compromises, but would avoid attempts to clear the shelves of vaping products altogether.
We’ll now fast forward a bit to September of 2018, when the FDA ordered nation’s largest manufacturers of e-cigarettes (which includes both Juul Labs and Altria, the owners of Philip Morris and Marlboro Cigarettes and a company that now invests in Juul), to “submit plans outlining how they planned to curb youth vaping,” an issue that has been at the crux of Gottlieb’s campaign against vaping and e-cigarettes. At least one CDC report shows e-cigarette use among high school teens as high as 20.8%, and the level is considered an “epidemic” by the regulatory agency.
Without digressing too much, however, at the time of the September 2018 announcement, Altria seemed to be in agreement with the FDA’s take on e-cigarettes and the need to combat vaping among teens, stating outright that many of the fruity e-liquid flavors could serve as a lure for youth to try e-cigarettes, and that they would make plans to pull their versions of such products from shelves.
Now here’s where things get tricky. In December of 2018, Juul Labs announced a 12.8 billion investment they received from Altria, giving Altria minority ownership of the company. The deal itself drew mixed reactions from onlookers (with some claiming it damaged Juul’s legitimacy in claiming their devotion to smoking cessation). Altria’s post-deal comments just added fuel to that fire, as reported by USA Today:
“Altria’s comments after investing in Juul in December were very different. Juul’s nicotine pods and fruity flavors have become so wildly popular among teens, ‘Juuling’ has become a verb synonymous with vaping. When it announced the deal, Altria told investors it planned to use its distribution experience to get Juul into more stores and onto better shelves.”
The deal reportedly left Gottlieb “concerned,” and, to the commissioner, was a sign that the companies had gone back on their commitment, prompting him to note that the FDA “can always remove Juul’s products from the market.” To some, that could be considered a threat to put the brakes on vaping altogether, and while no action has come of it yet, it does highlight the tenuous position that vaping is in, and the potential consequences that could come if the industry draws the ire of the FDA.
For it’s part, Altria reached out to Commissioner Gottlieb in hopes of speaking with him in greater detail about their investment in Juul, and still says that they agree with the commissioner on the broader point of trying to curb underage vaping. How the situation will play out remains to be seen, and Gottlieb made clear that the FDA, while it would not want to, would definitely take to removing products from shelves “if teen vaping trends don’t reverse their course.”
But Hasn’t Gottlieb Announced His Resignation?
Adding a new wrinkle to the relationship between the FDA and the vaping industry is news of Gottlieb’s resignation. On March 5th, Gottlieb announced that he would be leaving his post as Commissioner of the FDA in April 2019, citing the desire to spend more time with his family. This raises the question of what will come next for many of the initiatives he has proposed in regards to e-cigarettes and vaping, and while there is hope among that his departure may be a bring about a friendly change for the interactions between FDA and the vaping industry, others aren’t so sure.
Writing for CNBC, Angelica LaVito noted that Gottlieb, in spite of some of his bombastic rhetoric, “wasn’t as tough on the industry as he could have been — or as his successor might be.” He did, after all, tend toward attempts to work with e-cigarette manufacturers and avoid taking steps towards outright bans of devices. Additionally, he saw vaping as a useful tool to help curb the use of traditional cigarettes, according to the article.
It’s entirely possible that whoever steps into Gottlieb’s shoes will take an even tougher stance than he did. There’s also some worry that if Gottlieb’s replacement completely reverses any steps toward regulation, youth vaping could skyrocket, and force intervention from Congress.
What’s Next For The FDA and Vaping on the Whole?
Gottlieb stated that before his resignation in April, the FDA would follow through on its proposed e-liquid flavor sales restrictions, and that he expects that his successor will pick up the torch on regulations where he left off. That doesn’t mean they will all come to fruition, however, and much rests on who will follow Gottlieb as head of the FDA.In the short-term, the Trump administration is expected to name an acting commissioner to serve until a suitable long-term replacement can be identified, but as the Washington Post has pointed out, “acting” officials are often limited in how aggressive they can be when it comes to implementing their agendas, meaning that much of what Gottlieb proposed as FDA commissioner could get lost in the shuffle. We’ll likely have to wait until a more permanent commissioner takes the reigns at the FDA to determine what form the relationship between the agency and the vaping industry will take next.