Smoke to Live Vapor Shop employee Taylor Morris stands outside Liber-T Gift Shop as he promotes his merchandise to walking traffic.
The chemicals in e-cigarettes cause similar damage to the lungs as those contained in cigarettes. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The use of electronic cigarettes by young people has reached epidemic proportions, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The agency announced Wednesday it was cracking down on the sales and marketing of electronic cigarettes to teenagers through a “series of critical and historic” measures to address the alarming statistics.

“We cannot allow a whole new generation to become addicted to nicotine,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said. “The FDA has taken a series of actions over the past several months to more immediately target the illegal sales of e-cigarettes to youth, as well as the kid-friendly marketing and appeal of these products.”

The plan focuses on reducing access and appeal of e-cigarette products.

Gottlieb ordered the five top e-cigarette manufacturers to say within 60 days how they would address the trend of underage use, or face removal of their products from the market. These brands – JUUL, Vise, MarkTenXL, blu e-cigs, and Logic – comprise more than 97 percent of the U.S. market for e-cigarettes and made up the vast majority of illegal sales from June 2018 through the end of August.

In addition, the FDA sent more than 1,300 warning letters and fines to both online and brick-and-mortar retailers who illegally sold e-cigarette products to minors during that time.

Dr. Tamara Simpson, pulmonologist with UT Health San Antonio, told the Rivard Report on Thursday that while smoking rates have been consistently decreasing over the last few years, the increase in e-cigarette use would contribute to “the incidence of nicotine use and addiction rise again.”

“Vaping is rampant and it’s really alarming,” Simpson said. “It’s like nothing I have ever seen before, and I think the fact that it’s not really thought to be dangerous in any way, instead it is viewed as recreational, that it is even more insidious,” Simpson said.

The products, sold in flavors like gummy bear, cotton candy, mango, and cucumber, are appealing to youth despite the harmful effects the products have on the developing brain, FDA officials said. The FDA also cited research saying more than 2 million middle and high school students were current users of e-cigarettes in 2017.

It also found that e-cigarettes were the most commonly used tobacco product among middle and high school students for the fourth year in a row in 2017.

In Texas, 12,300 youth under the age of 18 become new daily smokers each year, according to a 2017 report from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, with more than 14 percent using e-cigarettes.

Of Bexar County high school students, 12.6 percent of males, and 9.9 percent of females currently smoke, according to the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

“[E-cigarette use] is bad for you not just because of the chemicals that cause cancer, it is also really bad for a developing brain because it changes the structure of your brain,” Metro Health Director Colleen Bridger told the Rivard Report. “When you expose a developing brain to vaping, you’re altering the brain so that it is easier to become addicted to nicotine and other substances.”

Bridger successfully led the charge to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products in San Antonio from age 18 to 21, which was passed by City Council on Jan. 11, making San Antonio the first city in Texas to impose such a restriction.

“We really have to look at these policies that limit access to dangerous products and I’m glad the FDA is doing that,” Bridger said. “I am excited to see what plans the e-cigarette companies come up with for how they are going to discourage youth from using their products.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.