FDA’s approval of British American Tobacco’s E-cigarette Product Leaves Youth at Risk

Statement from STOP, a Global Tobacco Industry Watchdog

(New York, October 13, 2021) – The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) yesterday confirmed that it has authorized e-cigarette product Vuse from RJ Reynolds, a subsidiary of one of the world’s largest cigarette companies, British American Tobacco (BAT). While the FDA denied RJ Reynolds authorization for certain flavored products, STOP is concerned that the FDA appears willing to make a trade-off between attempts to support some smokers and protecting youth.

Any possible benefits to public health from e-cigarettes can only be realized if these products are targeted to and used only by smokers. Survey data published in 2021 suggests that Vuse is one of the most popular brands among the estimated 2.06 million middle and high school students currently using e-cigarettes. There is evidence that Vuse’s global marketing appears designed to reach and appeal to youth, on social media and via Formula 1 (a sport with a growing, young fanbase in the US), Indycar and music event sponsorships. STOP’s Driving Addiction report details that Vuse branding was placed on F1 cars for the Bahrain and Monaco Formula 1 races, and race broadcasts subverted marketing bans or restrictions in other countries—including the US. An exacerbated epidemic of youth vaping may be the consequence of failing to properly regulate this market.

The long-term impact of these products on health is still unknown both at the individual and population levels. Independent researchers from Johns Hopkins recently studied Vuse and other popular e-cigarettes and found them to contain nearly 2000 unidentified chemicals. Several of the chemicals that were identified are known to be harmful. The researchers questioned whether these chemicals may deliver “an extra kick that is not disclosed.” If this is the case, there are worrying echoes of the tobacco industry’s strategy of using additives and flavors to make cigarettes more addictive.

Making these products more addictive is a valid concern considering the extremely high amounts of nicotine in Vuse liquid pods which, according to Reuters reporting, are equivalent to the nicotine strength in a pack of cigarettes.

While the FDA did not authorize 10 flavored products because RJ Reynolds had not demonstrated that they would appropriately protect public health, it did not rule on the menthol-flavored Vuse. Menthol, like other flavors and additives, should not be permitted. Research suggests that menthol helps addict young people to tobacco use and makes it more difficult for users to quit. This is why the FDA has taken an evidence-based decision to move to ban menthol tobacco products. So the agency’s hesitation to deny approval for a menthol-flavored e-cigarette product that is already known to be popular among schoolchildren appears misaligned.

Approving the menthol Vuse product may also undermine efforts to address the use of menthol in cigarettes. Reports from Europe reveal that the tobacco industry promoted menthol e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products to subvert the impact of the EU’s ban on menthol cigarettes.

The FDA needs to more tightly regulate flavors, pricing and marketing restrictions of these products, and there must be independent research on their impacts. There should be robust public health-led surveillance of smoking and e-cigarette initiation and user behavior, including dual use, to understand whether any public health benefits are achieved.

The FDA should consider the track record of the industry and the company involved before it places its trust in RJ Reynolds and BAT. Tobacco companies hoodwinked regulators and lied to the public for decades, until they were forced to admit the truth, run corrective statements about their products, and to pay. Recent research, such as STOP’s BAT Uncovered investigation, reveals BAT is reportedly linked to interference in health policy and other questionable practices.

The tobacco industry has a long history of promoting less dangerous products that ultimately turned out to be harmful. It has promoted e-cigarettes as its newest flavor of harm reduction as a way to divide the public health community, a well-documented tactic. The truth is cigarette companies need to retain and recruit customers. Regulators and consumers should not be fooled again. Vuse—and any other tobacco or e-cigarette product—should never be attractive, available or affordable to kids.

Please contact the STOP press office for more information or to speak to a STOP spokesperson.


About STOP (Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products)

STOP is a global tobacco industry watchdog whose mission is to expose the tobacco industry strategies and tactics that undermine public health. STOP is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and comprised of a partnership between The Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of BathThe Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC), the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) and Vital Strategies. For more information, visit exposetobacco.org.