April 24 (UPI) -- The Food and Drug Administration is attempting to reduce underage use of a popular e-cigarette brand called JUUL, including warning retail and online violators.
The FDA announced Tuesday it has issued 40 letters to retailers illegally selling JUUL products to minors since the beginning of March. In addition, the FDA contacted eBay about several listings for JUUL products on its website.
On April 6, the agency began conducting a one-month undercover blitz nationwide to crack down on sales in stores and online to those under 18 years of age.
"I hope that this sends a clear message to all tobacco product manufacturers and retailers that the FDA is taking on this issue with urgency, and if kids are flocking to your product or you're illegally selling these products to kids, you're on the agency's radar," Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner, said in a statement.
The crackdown is part of an effort to cut down on the use of nicotine and tobacco in the United States.
"Protecting our nation's youth from the dangers of tobacco products is among the most important responsibilities of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- and it's an obligation I take personally," Gottleib said. "We recognize that if the FDA is to end the tragic cycle of successive generations of nicotine and tobacco addiction, we must take every opportunity to disrupt that process where it starts: youth access to and use of tobacco products."
The announcement comes one week after six leading public health and medical organizations sent a letter to Gottlieb urging the agency to address the dramatic increase in teen use of JUULs. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois and 10 of his Senate colleagues also sent letters to the FDA and JUUL about the products.
This comes in the wake of a study by the Truth Initiative that found many young people are aware of the e-cigarette brand, but few know it contains nicotine. And a survey released in March from the 2016 National Youth Tobacco Survey also found that teenagers who use tobacco products other than cigarettes often see their habit as harmless.
According to a 2014 Surgeon General's Report, e-cigarettes may be less harmful than combustible tobacco products, but they have been shown to strongly increase the likelihood of cigarette use among young people. More than four times as many young adults who use e-cigarettes eventually switch to tobacco cigarettes than those who do not vape.
Last month, the FDA announced it was taking the first steps to limit fruit flavoring and menthol in tobacco products.
"A key part of that plan was establishing the foundational framework for regulating non-combustible tobacco products for adults, like e-cigarettes," Gottlieb said Tuesday. "But as we work to keep kids from making the deadly progression from experimentation to regular cigarette use, it's imperative that we also make sure children and teenagers aren't getting hooked on more novel nicotine-delivery products."
Gottlieb said other products besides JUUL, including myblu and KandyPens, have similar characteristics.
"The troubling reality is that electronic nicotine delivery systems such as e-cigarettes have become wildly popular with kids," Gottlieb said. "We understand, by all accounts, many of them may be using products that closely resemble a USB flash drive, have high levels of nicotine and emissions that are hard to see. These characteristics may facilitate youth use, by making the products more attractive to children and teens."
The undercover blitz is checking the sale of the products to minors at brick-and-mortar and online retailers.
After the FDA contacted eBay, the online retailer removed several listings for Juul products.
Aside from the 40 retailers receiving a warning letter, the FDA sent JUUL a 904(b) letter, which refers to the section of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, requesting marketing documents and research the company has conducted on health, toxicological, behavioral or psychologic effects of the product. The agency also has requested information about product complaints JUUL has received.
After reviewing the information, the FDA could take enforcement actions.
The agency said it also plans to issue letters to other manufacturers.
"We appreciate that JUUL Labs has already expressed recognition of this problem and has reached out to the FDA and other stakeholders to discuss these concerns," Gottlieb said. "But we must all recognize that more needs to be done."
JUUL did not issue an immediate reaction to the FDA announcement, though a spokeswoman for the company told UPI last week that the company strongly condemns the use of its products by minors, and noted that it is illegal to sell JUUL to minors
"No minor -- or non-nicotine user -- should be in the possession of JUUL," the spokeswoman said. "In fact, we clearly state on our package labeling that JUUL is for adult smokers only and contains nicotine."