Hooking kids not worth benefits to adults

Scott Gottlieb, former Commissioner of the FDA

Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Thursday that the surge in kids using flavored nicotine vapes is an “urgent” need that needs to be addressed.

“The unfortunate thing is these products can be helpful in currently addicted adult smokers” transition from cigarettes to something less harmful, said Gottlieb, a health advocate and Pfizer board member. “But it can’t come at the expense of addicting a whole generation of kids onto nicotine.”

Gottlieb referred to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, which showed Wednesday that kids are increasingly using e-cigarettes. In 2018, 27.5% of youths reported using e-cigarettes, compared to 20.8% in 2018. Just three years ago, in 2016, the number was at 11.3%.

Previously having declared a vaping “epidemic,” Gottlieb on Thursday said this “really requires some action” on the government’s part.

The new data comes as the Trump administration announced Wednesday it is preparing to ban flavored e-cigarettes as a mysterious lung disease has sickened hundreds and killed at least six people.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently finalizing its guidance to remove all non-tobacco flavors of e-cigarettes, including mint and menthol, from the market within 30 days. Companies might be able to reintroduce their flavors at a later date, so long as they submit a formal application and receive approval from the FDA.

“The Trump Administration is making it clear that we intend to clear the market of flavored e-cigarettes to reverse the deeply concerning epidemic of youth e-cigarette use that is impacting children, families, schools and communities,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement Wednesday. “We will not stand idly by as these products become an on-ramp to combustible cigarettes or nicotine addiction for a generation of youth.”

“This crisis, this epidemic was created by one product: Juul,” Gottlieb said in a “Squawk Box” interview, pointing to the vaping company that’s partially owned by Altria. “You have to take steps to try to reduce the appeal and access the kids have to these products.”

Since launching in 2015, Juul has quickly come to dominate the e-cigarette industry with roughly 40% of the market, becoming such a dominant player that Altria, the top U.S. cigarette company, invested $12.8 billion for a 35% stake in the San Francisco-based start-up.

A spokesman for Juul was not immediately available to respond to Gottlieb’s comments.

The vaping giant has repeatedly said its products are meant to help wean adults off of cigarettes and should be kept out of the hands of minors. It’s also advocated for raising the minimum smoking age to 21 and has shut down its social media sites.

Gottlieb said in a separate CNBC interview Monday that it was time for a “federal reckoning” as the number of vaping-related deaths grew.

— CNBC’s Angelica LaVito contributed to this report.

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