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Disposable vape sales soared after FDA focused efforts elsewhere

Sweet- and fruity-flavored disposable vapes are most popular among teens, the CDC finds

A vape shop in Queens, New York City. The CDC on Thursday released new sales data for e-cigarettes.
A vape shop in Queens, New York City. The CDC on Thursday released new sales data for e-cigarettes. (UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

E-cigarette sales surged during the pandemic, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows, with the spike concentrated in disposable vapes after they took a back seat in federal enforcement actions.

The FDA has been under fire from lawmakers as the vaping industry flourished, especially among teenagers. But the agency is also weathering backlash from vaping advocates who say the agency is undercutting a less harmful alternative for traditional smokers.

E-cigarette sales increased an estimated 46.6 percent, from 15.5 million to 22.7 million, between January 2020 and December 2022, according to brick-and-mortar retail data analyzed by the CDC and the anti-nicotine advocacy group Truth Initiative. The total number of e-cigarette brands also increased from 184 to 269, or 46.2 percent, during the study period.

But state flavor bans and stronger federal enforcement might be bending the curve. Sales fell by 12.3 percent in the latter portion of the study period, between May and December 2022.

The numbers come with caveats — the data excluded specialty vape shops and online sales and also did not account for the size or strength of the products sold.

The data suggests the market is reacting to enforcement decisions. Sales of pre-filled cartridges tumbled after the FDA began prioritizing the products in January 2020, citing their popularity among underage users. Sales of fruity and sweet flavors practically stopped altogether, while overall sales fell from 75.2 percent to 48 percent.

Disposable sales, however, more than doubled from 24.7 percent to 51.8 percent. Sweet and fruity flavors continue to soar, making up 79.6 percent of the market. (The study lumped any flavor besides tobacco, mint and menthol into one “other” category that also includes flavors like spices or alcoholic beverages.)

Sweet- and fruity-flavored disposable vapes are the most popular among teens. The study shows that Elf Bar was the best-selling disposable brand and third overall in December 2022, cutting into sales of Puff Bar, the disposable e-cigarette of choice among teens, according to the CDC’s 2022 youth vaping survey.

On Thursday, the FDA conducted what it called an enforcement “blitz” against retailers selling Elf Bar and Esco Bars products. The agency sent a similar round of warning letters in May to retailers selling unauthorized products from Puff Bar and Hyde, another popular brand among teens.

Elf Bar’s Chinese parent company IMiracle Shenzhen Technology Co. Ltd., accused the FDA of bullying mom-and-pop stores and ignoring the science on e-cigarettes. The company also argued the CDC study was flawed and that the FDA was overestimating the appeal of sweet flavors to underage users.

“As IMiracle has made clear before, it is the responsibility of every company to stand with its stakeholders,” it said in a statement. “IMiracle has worked hard to build trusted brands and a loyal adult customer base and will continue to defend its retail customers and its adult consumers by fighting back against this regulatory action. IMiracle calls on its fellow industry members to do the same.”

Disposable brand Breeze Smoke was the fifth best-selling brand. Pre-filled brands Vuse and Juul were the best-selling and second best-selling overall, respectively, while fellow pre-filled brand NJOY came in fourth.

To date, the FDA has authorized only 23 tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes and seems skeptical of mint and menthol flavors. It seems increasingly unlikely the agency will greenlight any flavor beyond mint or menthol. The agency is grappling with an ongoing backlog in vaping applications, although it said it has reviewed 99 percent of the 26 million products.

The CDC data highlights the impact that a federal ban on all flavors could have on the vaping market, but the FDA will have to step up enforcement first. The CDC urged leaders to take additional public health measures to rein in nicotine addiction.

“These strategies include comprehensive restrictions on the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, menthol cigarettes, and flavored cigars, in all jurisdictions,” the CDC said, “coupled with long-standing evidence-based youth prevention strategies, such as price increases and comprehensive smoke-free policies that prohibit use of both e-cigarettes and smoked tobacco products indoors.”

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