TAMPA - US regulators Thursday ordered sharp restrictions on sales of e-cigarettes, as national data showed a 78 percent single-year surge in vaping among young people, with two-thirds using fruit and candy-flavored products.
The proposed regulations announced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would allow flavored e-cigarettes products to be sold in stores only, not online, and would also ban menthol in cigarettes and flavored cigars.
The changes are open to a public comment period lasting until June before they can take effect.
"These data shock my conscience," said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, referring to the latest data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey.
"From 2017 to 2018, there was a 78 percent increase in current e-cigarette use among high school students and a 48 percent increase among middle school students," he said.
A total of 3.6 million US youths reported vaping at least once in the past month, the data showed.
"These increases must stop. And the bottom line is this: I will not allow a generation of children to become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes," said Gottlieb.
The battery-powered devices heat a nicotine liquid that users inhale, and are gaining popularity in the United States and abroad, particularly among young people, which Gottlieb has previously described as an "epidemic."
The proposed rules aim to restrict sales of all flavored vaping cartridges -- other than tobacco, mint and menthol -- to sales at "age-restricted, in-person locations and, if sold online, under heightened practices for age verification," said an FDA statement.
The reason mint- and menthol-flavored e-cigarettes are not included is they are more popular with adults who may be using them to decrease or stop their use of traditional cigarettes.
"This reflects a careful balancing of public health considerations," Gottlieb said, citing data that shows mint- and menthol-flavored e-cigarette products "are more popular with adults than with kids."
At the same time, the FDA announced a proposal to ban menthol in combustible cigarettes and cigars.
"I'm deeply concerned about the availability of menthol-flavored cigarettes," Gottlieb said.
"I believe these menthol-flavored products represent one of the most common and pernicious routes by which kids initiate on combustible cigarettes," he said, adding that "menthol products disproportionately and adversely affect underserved communities."
Health experts applauded the FDA move.
"The banning of flavors, popular among teens, would definitely be an important step in curbing the growing epidemic of e-cigarettes among youth," said Patricia Folan, director of the Center for Tobacco Control at Northwell Health, a network of hospitals in New York.
Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said "it is widely recognized that e-cigarettes are the gateway to smoking tobacco cigarettes for teens and young adults."
E-cigarettes expose users to significantly lower levels of potentially toxic substances than traditional cigarettes, except for nicotine, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said earlier this year.
But Horovitz cautioned "there is a question of safety in e-cigarettes because of the presence of propylene glycol, and other as yet unidentified compounds."
Some e-cigarette makers have already taken steps to curb sales to young people, including JUUL, a fast-growing startup which announced Tuesday it is suspending in-store sales of various flavored products and scrapping its social media presence.
JUUL flavors such as mango, fruit, and creme will now only be available on the company's website, "where we are adding additional age-verification measures," a statement said.
For its part, American tobacco giant Altria, maker of major brands like Marlboro and Chesterfield, said earlier this month it would stop selling 2 types of e-cigarettes that use "pods" of flavored nicotine liquid for refills.
Altria will maintain the sale of its other e-cigarettes -- which resemble conventional cigarettes and which come in traditional flavors like tobacco and menthol.
On Wall Street, tobacco stocks slid on the news, continuing a decline that began last week as media reports warned of the impending regulations.
Altria fell 1.86 percent at 1:45 (1845 GMT) while British American Tobacco (Dunhill, Lucky Strike, Pall Mall) lost 3 percent and Philip Morris International fell 0.26 percent.