FDA’s departing chief considers yanking nicotine vaping pods off the market

A Juul vaping system with pods. The e-cigarette device is popular with teenagers.
A Juul vaping system with pods. The e-cigarette device is popular with teenagers.
(Washington Post / Getty Images)

With weeks to go in his tenure atop the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb squared off with two companies at the center of his efforts to halt a surge in teen vaping.

Gottlieb, who plans to leave his post April 5, said at an event in Washington that his agency may need to pull pod-based nicotine products off the market as it fights a surge in teen vaping. He said he had a contentious meeting last week with executives from Marlboro maker Altria Group Inc. and Juul Labs Inc.

Late last year, Altria took a $12.8-billion stake in Juul, maker of a popular vaping device, at the same time that the companies had promised to increase efforts to keep kids from getting hooked on e-cigarettes. Miffed by the transaction, Gottlieb had summoned the companies to Washington to provide answers.


“The e-cigarette industry has been overly dismissive” of the risk that kids could become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarette use, Gottlieb said on Tuesday at the Brookings Institution. “We’re capturing an exploding epidemic right now.”

Gottlieb said the FDA is working on defining exactly what constitutes a pod-based product in case it needs to temporarily ban them. Sales of vaping pods could resume if manufacturers show that their devices are geared toward adult cigarette smokers trying to quit, and not kids.

“It was a difficult meeting,” the commissioner said, noting that there was a “disconnect” between the companies’ priorities and those of health officials. He added that it appeared Altria’s decision to purchase a stake in Juul was purely a business decision and not driven by public health concerns.

Shares of Altria fell $1.29, or 2.3%, to $56.01 on Tuesday.

Altria and Juul didn’t specifically respond to Gottlieb’s characterization of the meeting. Both companies said they remain committed to combating underage use of e-cigarettes.

“The FDA is going to have to very carefully calculate its action against the entire category of pod-based products,” Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb also said the FDA’s proposed rule to cut nicotine in cigarettes to nonaddictive levels will probably be ready for review by the Trump administration this summer. Doing so could cause about 5 million adult smokers to quit smoking in the first year of adoption, the FDA has previously reported.


Separately, San Francisco officials proposed legislation Tuesday that would forbid the sale of e-cigarettes in the city and ban companies such as Juul from occupying city-owned property, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Juul’s headquarters are in offices owned by the city.

The FDA last week released a draft guideline on its much-anticipated plan to limit the sales of most flavored e-cigarettes. The proposal calls for enhancing enforcement against flavored e-cigarette sales in retail locations where a minor can enter at any time, such as a convenience store or gas station. The restrictions won’t apply to tobacco, mint or menthol-flavored e-cigarettes.

Gottlieb, who has taken heat from senators and industry leaders over a plan to ban menthol cigarettes, declined to comment specifically on the next steps for the initiative after his departure. But he did say the long-term goal is to remove “characterizing flavors” from all tobacco products.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told senators last week that there are complex legal issues surrounding banning menthol in cigarettes.

Norman E. Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, will serve as acting FDA commissioner when Gottlieb leaves his post.