The US government confiscates illicit electronic cigarettes, while numerous new ones are being introduced.
The Associated Press examined data from both government and industry sources and found that while federal officials are confiscating more unapproved electronic cigarettes at U.S. ports, there is still a large influx of thousands of new flavored products being imported from China.
The numbers highlight the disorganized condition of the country’s $7 billion vaping industry and bring up concerns about the approach the U.S. government can take to prevent the availability of fruit-flavored disposable e-cigarettes, which are being used by 10% of American teenagers and young adults.
According to the data from analytics firm Circana, the number of distinct vaping products being sold in American stores has increased by 27% to over 11,500, compared to 9,000 in June. This information is not widely available.
According to Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a psychologist at Stanford University who creates educational materials against vaping, the FDA may target one product, but the manufacturers find ways to work around it and teenagers are also able to find ways to access it. Halpern-Felsher also mentions that it is too simple for companies to make minor changes to their products and reintroduce them into the market.
Halpern-Felsher regularly revises her curriculum to stay current with the latest vaping brands and trends.
Based on sales data collected from gas stations, convenience stores, and other shops, it appears that the majority of recently released products are disposable e-cigarettes. These products have generated a total of $3.2 billion in revenue during the first 11 months of this year.
The FDA has approved a few e-cigarette options for use by adult smokers, while also evaluating products from major companies such as Juul. Most other e-cigarettes are deemed illegal by regulators.
According to Brian King, the tobacco director at the FDA, individuals who engage in illegal activities do not openly promote their wrongdoings. This applies to those attempting to bring illegal tobacco products into the United States as well. In response to questions from AP, King stated that the FDA and other federal agencies are implementing strategies such as import alerts to prevent the entry of these illegal products at the border and discourage others from attempting similar actions.
Despite a record number of products being seized, the sales of e-cigarettes continue to rise.
Last month, according to an FDA database, authorities denied entry to 148 shipments of tobacco products, primarily vaping items from China. These rejected imports are typically disposed of.
As of the end of November, authorities in the United States rejected 374 shipments this year, which is more than twice the number of 118 rejections in 2022.
This year’s collection consisted of Esco Bars valued at $400,000, which is a brand that was recently added to the list of prohibited imports in May. The information posted by the agency is typically preliminary as it requires time to complete refusals.
However, recent events have demonstrated the ease with which companies can navigate import restrictions.
In July of 2022, the Food and Drug Administration prohibited numerous e-cigarettes made by Chinese company Fume, including the flavors Pineapple Ice and Blue Razz.
After the prohibition, there was a decrease in the sales of Fume, but the company introduced a variety of fresh items and reported $42 million in sales in the United States during the third quarter of 2023, according to the data. Approximately 98% of these sales were generated by products that were not included in the FDA’s “red list” of items that could be seized.
The methods used by the industry for shipping are also posing a challenge to the effectiveness of import restrictions.
In the month of July, officials from FDA and customs discovered and seized $18 million worth of illicit vaping products, including a popular brand called Elf Bar. However, the packages were falsely labeled as various items such as shoes and toys rather than e-cigarettes, which meant that authorities had to manually open and confirm the contents of over twenty containers.
Circana, previously known as IRI, limits the availability of its data and profits from selling it to businesses and researchers. The AP was granted access by an unauthorized individual under the condition of anonymity.
The FDA does not have a set schedule for revising its lists of imports, but has stated that it is closely observing cases where companies attempt to evade detection.
According to King from the FDA, we have a range of options available to us for addressing these tactics.
The agency has limited authority to impose penalties on foreign companies. Instead, regulators have issued numerous warning letters to American retailers that carry their goods, but these do not have legal enforceability.
The FDA is currently facing challenges in completing a long-term evaluation of applications from manufacturers seeking to sell their products to adult consumers, despite efforts to collaborate with customs officials.
According to Circana, the sales of FDA-approved tobacco-flavored products are only $174 million, making up just 2.4% of the vaping market this year and are not well-liked by consumers.
According to Marc Silas, owner of 906 Vapor shop in Michigan, there is no demand for these products. He states that if there was a demand, they would be readily available on the shelves, but that is not the case.
Public health organizations have taken legal action against the FDA due to their dissatisfaction with the slow review process. The FDA had initially planned to finish all major pending applications this year, but they have now stated that it will likely continue into the following year.
The delays have sparked concerns regarding the effectiveness of the existing regulatory system for e-cigarettes.
According to Scott Ballin, a health policy consultant and former employee of the American Heart Association, the FDA is struggling to adapt to a changing environment with outdated methods. The agency’s current process of individually reviewing a large number of products has put them in a difficult position.