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The FDA authorizes e-cigarettes for the first time, citing benefits for smokers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The FDA says at least one popular e-cigarette brand can stay on the market. It's the first authorization of its kind. This comes as the FDA is still deciding whether Juul and other e-cigarette products should be sold.

NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So explain the details of this decision by the FDA.

AUBREY: Sure. The FDA has been wending its way through a slew of applications from e-cigarette makers. Remember, when these products first came on the market, there wasn't much regulation. So the agency has been playing catch-up. The FDA has now rejected a bunch of applications from companies that make flavored products, such as apple crumble or Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, these flavors clearly designed to appeal to teens. But the agency has decided to authorize a line of products called Vuse, marketed by R.J. Reynolds Vapor Company. Now, the key difference here - they are tobacco flavored and so in theory are less appealing to teens. Remember, the original rationale for e-cigarettes is that they were less harmful than smoking and could help adult smokers quit. Basically, the FDA said the company submitted data to demonstrate that that is the case with these Vuse products.

MARTIN: OK. So what has the reaction been to this decision?

AUBREY: Well, there's a lot of criticism. The American Lung Association says the FDA's decision to authorize the marketing of Vuse products is troublesome. They point to a recent survey that found Vuse was the go-to brand for about 11% of high school students who vape. Another concern is that these products have a high concentration of nicotine, which is addictive.

I spoke to Matt Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. He said he applauds the FDA for rejecting the flavored products. But he was critical of the agency for its decision to greenlight Vuse.

MATT MYERS: The FDA did not pay close enough attention to either the real-world experience with Vuse or the real-world experience with products that deliver this level of addiction. The most recent data show that over 40% of kids who use e-cigarettes are addicted.

AUBREY: And at a time when about 2 million kids report vaping, he says this is a problem.

MARTIN: So the FDA still has to figure out whether other e-cigarette brands, like Juul, can stay on the market, right? Are those decisions coming soon?

AUBREY: Yeah. A big question now is what the agency will do about menthol, which is very popular. Juul markets a menthol product. And many health organizations have asked the FDA to reject Juul's application.

Here's Erika Sward of the American Lung Association.

ERIKA SWARD: We would oppose any Juul product remaining on the market. The history and their actions are clear, that they're interested in addicting a new generation. And no Juul product, whether it be tobacco flavored or menthol flavored, should be allowed to remain on the market.

AUBREY: Now, Juul is making the case that the company is focused on helping adult smokers quit cigarettes. They're not marketing to teens. The FDA could announce a decision at any time.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thank you so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.