The Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday that it will consider banning e-cigarettes, a threat that follows the agency issuing 1,300 warning letters and fines to retailers who illegally sold e-cigarettes to minors.
The agency discovered the illegal sales, both online and in stores, through undercover investigations. The e-cigarette products sold to kids included JUUL, a popular "pod" vaping device that looks like a USB drive.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in response has asked the industry to provide a plan about how it will "immediately and substantially" reverse the trends seen among minors, and said that he would otherwise consider banning e-cigarettes.
[Related: Teens get more nicotine with e-cigarettes than traditional cigarettes, new study finds]
An e-cigarette heats up a liquid, often containing nicotine, into a vapor that is inhaled by the user. The products often come in multiple flavors intended to mimic fruits or desserts, leading to charges from critics that they are intended to be appealing to children. Data shows that teen vaping has increased 900 percent in recent years, but smoking traditional cigarettes has hit record lows.
“We see clear signs that youth use of electronic cigarettes has reached an epidemic proportion, and we must adjust certain aspects of our comprehensive strategy to stem this clear and present danger ... We cannot allow a whole new generation to become addicted to nicotine," Gottlieb said.
The FDA asked for proposals within 60 days from five e-cigarette companies, including Vuse, Blu, JUUL, MarkTen XL, and Logic.
If officials aren't satisfied with the reponses, the FDA has several routes it could take, including banning flavored e-cigarettes or moving up the date that companies would be required to submit their products to the agency for review. Gottlieb had previously moved back the Obama administration deadline that would have begun review of the products this year.
A JUUL spokesperson said in an email to the Washington Examiner that the company would "work proactively with FDA in response to its request." The spokesperson noted that the flavors can be a tool to help adult smokers switch from traditional cigarettes to vaping.
"We are committed to preventing underage use of our product, and we want to be part of the solution in keeping e-cigarettes out of the hands of young people," the spokesperson said.
The FDA has been trying to work with e-cigarette companies by offering them an opportunity to submit applications to be approved as an option for smokers that is less risky than traditional cigarettes. FDA approval could even lead to the products receiving a label that they are effective at helping smokers quit.
The Vapor Techology Association said the FDA "took a giant step backwards against the best interest of public health."
"By threatening an industry – and technology that millions of adult smokers are successfully using to reduce or quit smoking deadly cigarettes – FDA is venturing into dangerous territory," the group said in a statement. "It is upending its own process by threatening to move forward deadlines and banning 'certain flavors' without engaging in its required comprehensive, science-based analysis."
Small e-cigarette manufacturers say the requirement to have their products reviewed are burdensome, unnecessary, and would create a black market of dangerous products. Having products approved by the FDA involves costly fees that they say smaller companies cannot pay.
Large tobacco companies have backed the move and are submitting their own inhalant alternatives.
Smoking remains the top cause of preventable death in the U.S., contributing to 480,000 deaths a year.
[Opinion: The crusade against JUUL and other vaping products is childish, even for tobacco control]