SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Citing lax federal regulation, San Francisco officials on Tuesday proposed banning the sale of e-cigarettes not reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and stopping e-cigarette companies from doing business on city property.
“The FDA has simply failed to do its job in unprecedented fashion,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement Tuesday. “These are prudent steps to ensure that we know the health and safety implications of products being sold here.”
The announcement comes after the cities of San Francisco, Chicago and New York sent a letter to outgoing FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb Tuesday morning urging the agency to take more aggressive action to regulate e-cigarettes.
Gottlieb, who plans to leave the FDA early next month, has proposed restricting the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, but the cities say the agency has dragged its feet taking concrete steps to stem the rise of tobacco use among young people.
“While the Food and Drug Administration has criticized e-cigarette companies for fueling a teen vaping ‘epidemic,’ it has largely failed to take action, giving e-cigarettes a marketplace to grow, resulting in the nicotine addiction of millions of children and teens,” Herrera wrote in the letter.
In 2016, the FDA classified e-cigarettes as tobacco products subject to its jurisdiction. After initially giving companies until 2018 to apply for review of their e-cigarette products, the FDA in 2017 extended that deadline to Aug. 8, 2022. Herrera sent a public records request to the FDA seeking documentation on its decision to extend that deadline, saying the records will help “determine whether legal action against the FDA is needed if the agency fails to undertake the required public health review.”
The cities noted several steps they have taken to curb e-cigarette use among young people in the absence of more aggressive FDA regulation. San Francisco voters approved banning the sale of flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, in a June referendum last year. In 2016, both San Francisco and Chicago raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. New York City has also banned the sale of e-cigarettes to persons under the age of 21.
On Tuesday, Herrera joined San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton in announcing legislation that would prohibit the sale within city limits of any e-cigarette product not reviewed by the FDA. Walton has also proposed blocking e-cigarette companies from using city-owned property to make, sell or distribute their wares. If that legislation passes, Juul Labs would have to vacate its headquarters at San Francisco’s historic Pier 70 building, the former site of ship-building operations during World War II.
Responding to the proposal, a Juul Labs spokesman said Tuesday that the company shares San Francisco’s concern about young people using tobacco and vapor products. Juul Labs says it has taken “aggressive action” nationwide to stop the sale of flavored tobacco to retailers and supported wide-ranging regulation to keep e-cigarettes away from young people.
However, Juul also characterized the city’s proposal as misguided, arguing it would limit access to products that can help adult smokers stop using more toxic traditional cigarettes.
“This proposed legislation begs the question – why would the city be comfortable with combustible cigarettes being on shelves when we know they kill more than 480,000 Americans per year?” Juul spokesman Ted Kwong said by email.
Juul’s revenues skyrocketed last year to more than $1 billion, up from $200 million in 2017. In December, Altria, which owns Philip Morris, invested $12.8 billion in Juul, giving the tobacco giant a 35 percent stake in the company.
Tobacco use among young people spiked last year for the first time since the 1990s with 4.9 million U.S. middle and high school students reporting that they used tobacco compared to 3.6 million in 2017. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attribute the increase to a surge in e-cigarette use.
Although e-cigarettes contain fewer toxic chemicals than traditional cigarettes, aerosol in “vape pens” can also include a host of harmful substances, including lead, nickel, tin, nicotine and other carcinogens.
The FDA did not immediately return an email request for comment Tuesday.