“We’re going to have to step in … we can’t just addict a whole generation of young people on nicotine with e-cigarettes and consider that a public health advance.”

Those were the words of Dr Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as he addressed a subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations in Washington DC last week.

News media in the US has been reporting a surge in popularity of e-cigarettes which look like USB keys in American high schools, with some labelling the trend an epidemic. 

One device has proved more popular than others and has been dubbed the Marlboro of the vape industry. The JUUL has even taken on a new dimension — it’s widely being used as a verb among high schoolers who are ‘juuling’ on school property. The boxy sleek device which resembles a flash drive and charges via a computer’s USB port, has been on the market for three years.

Following the subcommittee hearing, six major health and medical organisations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Lung Association, and the American Heart Association wrote to the FDA demanding action against Juul.

In the latest press statement to follow the subcommittee hearing, Dr Gottlieb said, it’s not just JUUL, “but other brands, such as myblu and KandyPens, that have similar characteristics.”

The FDA calls the impact of such devices a “troubling reality,” saying,

“We understand, by all accounts, many of them may be using products that closely resemble a USB flash drive, have high levels of nicotine and emissions that are hard to see.”

Teen smoking has been a problem down through the years and not just in the US. Now that ‘juuling’ appears to have taken over stateside at least, what, if anything, can the FDA do to combat this trend?

Parents have a responsibility too. 

While many are criticising the FDA for not enforcing bans or restrictions on these USB key-look-a-like devices, Dr Gottlieb reminded us that parents must also remain vigilant.

In response to appeals from the public, news coverage and the letter from the six leading health and medical organisations last week, the FDA has announced a series of new enforcement and regulatory steps.

Firstly, it was revealed that a large-scale and undercover blitz to crack down on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors has been underway since April 6 across the US.

Second, the FDA has established a warning letter which will be delivered to any vape shop or online e-cigarette retailer suspected of selling vape products to teenagers. This follows the uncovering of 40 violations  for illegal sales of JUUL products to youth.

Next, the FDA says it will hold retailers accountable for continued violations. On this Dr Gottlieb said,

“Let me be clear to retailers. This blitz, and resulting actions, should serve as notice that we will not tolerate the sale of any tobacco products to youth.”

Dr Gottlieb addressed the criticism the FDA has been subject to for what some have called a delayed response to this trend. The commissioner said the agency has not been sitting back doing nothing.

“In fact, the FDA has conducted 908,280 inspections of retail establishments that sell tobacco products, issued 70,350 warning letters to retailers for violating the law and initiated about 17,000 civil money penalty cases.” 

Whether any of these steps work in helping teachers and parents get ahead or prevent youth vaping remains to be seen. While the FDA appears to have a plan in place to tackle vape shops violating rules and selling products to youth, there has been little mention of educating teens at high school level.