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"China e-cigarette titan behind ‘Elf Bar’ floods the US with illegal vapes." That is the headline of an alarming Reuters report that reveals the extent to which nefarious Chinese actors have exploited lax enforcement in the United States to get kids hooked on illegal, disposable e-cigarettes in youth-appealing flavors.  

The Biden-Harris administration and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) need to do more to stop the flow of these dangerous products into our country, get them off store shelves and keep them away from vulnerable kids and teens.  

According to the latest National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), the use of disposable vapes by U.S. high school aged children has risen an incredible 1,336% since 2019. Most of these products, about 90%, come from China — even though that country has banned the sale of flavored vapes within its own borders.    

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When I served as the nation’s drug czar during the Obama administration, we were able to celebrate declines in teen smoking. While youth cigarette use has continued to decrease, down 85.2% since 2011, much of that progress has been reversed by the increase in illegal flavored disposable e-cigarette use. 

Vaping devices

A high school principal displays vaping devices that were confiscated from students in such places as restrooms or hallways at a school in Massachusetts. Schools around the country are installing sensors and cameras to crack down on student vaping. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Indeed, according to the NYTS, more than 60% of youths who are current e-cigarette users also reported using disposables, the highest rate since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started measuring youth usage of the products. 

One reason more kids are using illegal disposable vapes is their candy flavoring, designed to target youth. The Elf Bar, popular among American middle and high school students, comes is a dizzying array of flavors, like "Miami Mint," "Strawberry Kiwi," and "Beach Day." (Something tells me the flavor is more coconut rum than salt water and sand.) 

Another reason American youth are drawn to illegal disposable vapes is that they are easier to conceal from parents, teachers, coaches and other adults. Unscrupulous manufacturers are now making disposable e-cigarettes designed to look like toys, water bottles, and everyday school supplies. There is one product that is indistinguishable from a colorful highlighter, leaving no doubt that young people are the target market.  

School districts across the country have spent time and resources trying to curb their use and have even warned that some of these illegal vapes can be laced with deadly substances like fentanyl. 

As an Obama-Biden administration alum, it pains me to say that the FDA has not done enough to protect American children from Chinese importers. But the truth is that meek federal enforcement has allowed Chinese companies to flood the market. 

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The FDA "has had little success curtailing flavored e-cigarettes" from overseas, according to Reuters. That report noted China-based manufacturers like Elf Bar "are selling millions of vapes in the United States without getting FDA authorization for their products, which is required of any foreign or domestic e-cigarette purveyor." 

The FDA has sought fines against a handful of manufacturers and retailers, but those actions are clearly not enough. "The FDA moves at a ponderous pace and the industry knows that and exploits it," said Stanford University’s Dr. Robert Jackler. These companies even change their names to skirt federal enforcement. 

According to the latest National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), the use of disposable vapes by U.S. high school aged children has risen an incredible 1,336% since 2019. Most of these products, about 90%, come from China — even though that country has banned the sale of flavored vapes within its own borders.? ??

In the absence of federal action, states are making moves. As reports highlight that Florida is No. 1 in the country for the sale of illegal vapes, the Florida legislature has introduced a vital legislative proposal, requiring vape manufacturers to register with the state, ensure their products comply with federal and state laws, and incur fines for any violations.  

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It is imperative to pass S. 1006/H. 1007 into law to prevent illegal Chinese-manufactured disposable vapes from being available on store shelves and potentially accessible to our youth. 

This problem is not up to states to solve on their own, however. The FDA must do its part to enforce the law and empower state and local agencies to do the same. We, as a nation, must be more determined to protect our young people than China is to profit off their addiction to illegal, disposable, flavored vapes. 

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