A decade after Congress gave the F.D.A. the power to regulate tobacco products like e-cigarettes, the federal government has repeatedly delayed or weakened efforts that could have protected teenagers.
In 2009, not long after Dr. Margaret Hamburg became commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, a package arrived at her home. Inside was a clunky device called an e-cigarette.
“It was my first exposure to this emerging, new technology,” Dr. Hamburg recalled.
The package was sent by an antismoking activist as a warning about a product that was taking off in the United States. But over the next decade, the federal government — across the span of two presidential administrations — allowed the rise of a largely unregulated industry that may be addicting a new generation to nicotine.
E-cigarettes and vaping devices, with $7 billion in annual sales, have become a part of daily life for millions of Americans. Youth use has skyrocketed with the proliferation of flavors targeting teenagers, such as Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum and Zombie Blood. And nearly 1,300 people have been sickened by mysterious vaping-related lung injuries this year.
Yet the agency has not vetted the vast majority of vaping devices or flavored liquids for safety.
In dozens of interviews, federal officials and public health experts described a lost decade of inaction, blaming an intense lobbying effort by the e-cigarette and tobacco industries, fears of a political backlash in tobacco-friendly states, bureaucratic delays, and a late reprieve by an F.D.A. commissioner who had previously served on the board of a chain of vaping lounges.
“The minute you saw cotton candy flavors — come on,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who had warned since 2013 of the harms to adolescents. “Everything that could have been done should have been done to get them off the market.”
Dr. Hamburg’s F.D.A. suffered an early setback after two e-cigarette companies successfully sued the agency in 2009 for trying to regulate the products as drugs. The F.D.A. was forced instead to treat them as tobacco products under the newly passed Tobacco Control Act, which had less-stringent safety requirements.
Katie Thomas and Sheila Kaplan – New York Times – Oct. 14, 2019.