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US seizes more illegal e-cigarettes, but thousands of new ones are released

WASHINGTON-

Federal authorities are seizing more shipments of unauthorized e-cigarettes at U.S. ports, but thousands of new flavored products continue to flow into the country from China, according to government and industry data reviewed by the Associated Press.

The figures underscore the chaotic state of the nation’s $7 billion vaping market and raise questions about how the U.S. government can stop the flow of disposable, fruit-flavored e-cigarettes used by one in 10 U.S. teens. .

More than 11,500 unique vaping products are sold in U.S. stores, up 27% from 9,000 products in June, according to industry data from analytics firm Circana.

“The FDA destroys a product, and then manufacturers circumvent it and kids circumvent it,” said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a psychologist at Stanford University who develops anti-vaping educational materials. “It’s too easy to change your product a little and relaunch it.”

Halpern-Felsher says she is “constantly” updating her program to keep pace with new vaping brands and trends.

Nearly all of the new products are disposable e-cigarettes, according to sales data collected from gas stations, convenience stores and other stores. The products generated $3.2 billion in the first 11 months of this year.

The FDA has authorized a handful of e-cigarettes for adult smokers and is still reviewing products from several major companies, including Juul. Regulators consider almost all other e-cigarettes illegal.

“Those who commit illegal acts do not publicize their crimes, and those who attempt to import illegal tobacco products into the United States are no different,” said Brian King, director of tobacco at the FDA, in a written response to questions from the AP. “The FDA and our federal partners are using tools, like import alerts, to stop these illegal tobacco products at the border and deter countless others.”

The increase in sales of e-cigarettes continues despite a record number of products retained.

An FDA database shows that authorities “refused” entry to 148 containers or pallets of “tobacco products” last month, consisting almost entirely of vaping products from China. Rejected imports are generally destroyed.

Through the end of November, US authorities had refused 374 such shipments this year, more than double the 118 refusals in 2022.

This year’s items included $400,000 worth of Esco Bars, a disposable brand placed on a banned import list in May. The data released by the agency is often preliminary because it takes time to finalize denials.

But recent history shows how easily companies can circumvent import bans.

In July 2022, the FDA banned dozens of electronic cigarettes from Chinese manufacturer Fume, including Pineapple Ice and Blue Razz flavors.

Sales of the smokes fell after the ban, but the company launched a slew of new products, recording $42 million in U.S. sales in the third quarter of 2023, data shows. About 98 percent of sales came from products not on the FDA’s “red list” of detainable products.

The industry’s shipping tactics also call into question the usefulness of import restrictions.

In July, the FDA and Customs intercepted $18 million worth of illegal vapes, including the leading brand Elf Bar. But the shipments were mislabeled as shoes, toys and other items — not e-cigarettes — forcing authorities to individually open and check the contents of more than two dozen containers.

Circana, formerly IRI, restricts access to its data, which it sells to companies and researchers. A person not authorized to share it provided access to the AP on condition of anonymity.

The FDA has no timetable for updating its import lists, but said it is “closely monitoring” cases where companies are trying to avoid detection.

“The FDA has a variety of tools to take action against these tactics,” said the FDA’s King.

The agency has limited powers to penalize foreign companies. Instead, regulators have sent hundreds of warning letters to U.S. stores selling their products, but these are not legally binding.

Even as the FDA tries to work with customs officials, it has struggled to complete a yearlong review of applications submitted by manufacturers hoping to market their products to adults.

The few tobacco-flavored products currently authorized by the FDA are deeply unpopular. Their combined sales accounted for just $174 million, or 2.4 percent of the vaping market this year, according to Circana.

“Nobody wants it,” says Marc Silas, owner of the 906 Vapor store in Michigan. “If people wanted them, they would be on the shelves and they’re not.”

Deeply frustrated with the pace of the FDA’s review, public health groups successfully sued the agency to speed up the process. The agency aimed to finalize all outstanding major applications this year, but recently said the process would extend into next year.

The delays have raised questions about the viability of the current regulatory framework for e-cigarettes.

“The FDA is trying to operate with an old model when the whole environment has changed,” said Scott Ballin, a health policy consultant who previously worked for the American Heart Association. “They have a long line of products that need to be looked at one by one and now they find themselves in a giant hole.”

An alternative approach would be to make decisions about entire classes of e-cigarettes, rather than individual products.

The idea initially came from small vaping product manufacturers who didn’t have the money to conduct the large studies typical of FDA requests. Public health advocates concerned about the persistence of underage vaping have embraced it.

Stanford University’s Halpern-Felsher is among those urging the FDA to ban all flavored disposable e-cigarettes, the products used by most of the two million underage teens who vape.

“If we continue on this path, we will have new generations of young people addicted to nicotine,” she said.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Education Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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