ANALYSIS: From Illegal Immigration To Teen Vaping, Biden Admin Does Little As Crises Worsen

HOUSTON — The Biden Administration’s selective and lax enforcement of existing immigration laws have fueled a border crisis, peaking at 250,000 unauthorized crossings in December alone. Even with federal agents stationed on the border.

Another crisis is receiving the same, cooled response from the Biden White House, but is not getting the same amount of attention: that of youth e-cigarette use. And again, even with regulators close by.

An estimated 2.1 million children in the U.S. are using e-cigarettes and other vaping devices, according to the most recent National Youth Tobacco Survey — with over half of users responding that they vape nearly every day of the month. A projected 14% of U.S. high school students “vape” and 16.5% consume at least some form of tobacco product including vaping pens or traditional cigarettes, or a combination of delivery methods.

Flavored products are driving popularity of vaping among youth, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and numerous other sources, even though they are (largely) not allowed under federal rules and listings.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first began cracking down on vaping in 2020, by requiring e-cigarettes get regulatory approval in order to sell, according to an NPR report, yet disposable and often-flavored vaping devices remain widely available online and on convenience store shelves.

It’s a health crisis for sure. Although the effects of inhaling a mix of 7,000 chemicals found in a typical vape in the human body is not yet fully understood, Nicotine remains a highly addictive chemical that is proven to harm brain development. There are cancer-causing chemicals in vapes. Tiny particles — including heavy metals such as nickel, tin, and lead — are injected deep into the lungs with each inhalation. Even some flavorings have been linked to lung disease. Then there are the effects on mental health and pregnancy that are well-documented.

The problem has gotten so out of hand that the FDA and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on June 10 formed a multi-agency task force to address the illegal distribution and sale of e-cigarettes. Yet at numerous trade shows, the FDA has had a booth and took no major action against the purveyors of unlisted vaping products and devices.

As a recent example: In Houston over the weekend, a tradeshow titled the Alterative Products Expo did not turn into a massive bust, despite a paid FDA Center for Tobacco Products booth near the center of the exhibit hall.

Floorplan of the 2024 Houston Alternative Products Expo (screenshot)

The success of the Houston leg of the traveling “Alt Pro Expo” contributed to its billing as “the largest counterculture and vape trade show,” featuring not just vaping pens and devices but also marijuana alternatives, hemp products, and a variety of holistic therapy offerings. Other expos are held in large cities such as Atlanta and Miami, and international destinations Chile and Spain, according to its website.

Organizers acknowledge the regulatory climate of the vaping industry is “evolving” rapidly and there are age limits in most countries and jurisdictions in developed nations. But that’s where the admonitions stop.

Under the law, each manufacturer should apply for and receive approval from the FDA before being sold. Currently, only 27 brands of vaping devices are approved by the FDA — none of them for minors, and none the varied aromas often favored by youth, aside from some (seemingly arbitrary) recent allowances for menthol flavors.

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Another hurdle involves the origin of the products: More than 90% of vaping devices are manufactured in China, which makes getting to the source difficult. According to NPR, the FDA cracked down on popular black-market products, including the notorious Elf Bar and Esco Bar in 2023. The agency sent warnings to nearly 200 retailers selling them (though in Houston alone, there are 500 retailers “and soaring” Alt Pro Expo organizers claimed via its website).

Like with illegal immigration, the federal government has the ability to take stronger action as it did with Elf and Esco bar. According to an NBC News report, a week after President Joe Biden signed an executive action to suspend the entry of immigrants who cross the border illegally, the number fell by 25%.

Similarly, Biden’s FDA can take action to suspend illegal sales, as can the president himself. Aside from waiting for the newly formed task force to do its thing, the agency can levy heftier fines on retailers selling vapes to minors or offering unlisted devices, as Parents Against Vaping has pointed out. It could offer more clarity on which kinds of products are illegal, since the international marketplace for the devices offer a continual barrage of new brands and technologies. It can offer guidance to local and state law enforcement entities on their role in curbing the trafficking of illegal vaping products. Or it can simply stop enforcement altogether and see how that goes.

Alas, the federal response has been diplopic, even hypocritical. “Delayed action, half-baked measures, policy reversals, inconsistent enforcement of existing rules, and regulatory decisions heavily influenced by the industry that’s being regulated have been the hallmark of the federal government’s response to the youth vaping epidemic,” a press release from the Partnership to End Addiction noted at the onset of the Biden Administration. “The fact that youth vaping rates have been responsive to the limited bans and restrictions that have been put in place illustrates how effective government action can be. More consistent and comprehensive regulations could do so much more to not only steady, but actually eliminate, this recent threat to the public health.”

U.S. Senators are currently reviewing options to curb vaping among youth. Then there’s the judicial branch: a massive lawsuit against JUUL Labs has awarded numerous million-dollar sums to local governments to combat youth e-cigarette use.

Until the FDA takes more definitive action, Parents Against Vaping recommends contacting state regulators if local retailers are caught selling vaping products to minors. A state-by-state list by be viewed at
https://www.parentsagainstvaping.org/national-redirect-1

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