(NewsNation) — After years of struggling to wrangle a market of illegal e-cigarettes driven in large part by Chinese manufacturers, federal agents delivered a blow to a booming, yet unauthorized market.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration agents alongside Customs and Border Protection seized 1.4 million devices worth $18 million from a Chinese manufacturer behind the brand Elf Bar, announced this week. Many of the devices were disguised to look like toys or shoes, the FDA said.
The seizure happened in July, according to the Associated Press. The FDA announced the joint federal operation’s success Thursday, noting that the devices will be forfeited to the government and disposed of.
The operation marks the first known success of its kind since the FDA began targeting manufacturers and distributors of illegal vape products.
What is the illegal vape market?
To date, the FDA has only authorized 23 tobacco-flavored e-cigarette products and devices – meaning those are the only vape products retailers can legally sell in the U.S.
More than 90% of all vaping products are made in China, Reuters reported, and British American Tobacco argued the FDA needs to do more to crack down on products like Elf Bars that have “overrun” the U.S. market.
A spokesperson for Heavens Gifts, Elf Bar’s parent company, told Reuters it was “trying our best to stay compliant in the U.S.”
Despite attempts to intercept shipments and crack down on retailers continuing to stock the brightly colored devices and candy flavors, however, they remain popular, especially among youth.
More than one in four respondents of the 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey reported daily e-cigarette use, with Elf Bars along with Esco Bars and Breeze among the most commonly sold brands of disposable products in the U.S. Products from all three brands are sold illegally in the U.S.
Although the FDA would like to lower those numbers, they do reflect a decline in high school students who reported using vaping products the year prior.
Why does it matter?
The FDA has been vocal about its concerns with unauthorized vape products targeting children.
Notably, fruity flavors are the most popular among young people, followed by candy, desserts or other sweets, mint, and menthol varieties. The FDA in early 2020 restricted flavors in cartridge-based reusable products like Juul to just menthol and tobacco – flavors that tend to be more popular with adults.
Those restrictions, however, didn’t apply to disposable vaping products since, at the time, reusable devices were more popular among underage users. Now, disposable devices are more popular among young people, according to the FDA’s survey.
Manufacturers were quick to create new loopholes, too, including the introduction of synthetic nictotine that wasn’t subject to tradtional regulations.
In a game of regulatory Whac-A-Mole, the FDA in 2022 officially required all companies to remove their vapes from the market and file FDA applications, but new products continue to launch, regardless.
“Unscrupulous companies try everything they can to bring unauthorized, youth-appealing tobacco products into the country,” FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf said in an official statement. “The FDA will remain vigilant, and together with our federal partners, stop these imports before they make it into the hands of our nation’s youth.”
What’s being done to stop it?
The agency so far has struggled to get a firm hold on the illegal market, despite several measures attempting to crack down on distributors and retailers.
The FDA in May identified China-based Shenzhen Innokin Technology Co. Ltd as a leader responsible for popular disposable e-cigarette products – Breeze Smoke, LLC and Esco Bars.
It also targeted Elf Bar earlier this summer when it directed officials to seize incoming shipments of the product and another of its brand names EBDesigns.
The company apparently evaded those efforts, for a time at least, by switching names, the Associated Press Reported. Newer vaping devices were stamped with the name EBCreate and listed by different manufacturers.
Gearing its attention toward stores in the U.S., the FDA in June warned nearly 200 retailers to stop selling unauthorized vape products. It followed up in September by issuing complaints for civil money penalties against 22 retailers accused of continuing to sell Elf Bar/EB Design products.
In the wake of the FDA’s recent successful operation, Brian King, director of the agency’s Center for Tobacco Products, told those attempting to smuggle illegal e-cigarettes into the U.S. to “take heed.”
“Federal agencies are on to their antics and will not hesitate to take action,” King said. “The significant value of these seized products is also a sobering reminder to these bad actors that their time and money would be better spent complying with the law.”
As of this month, the FDA said it’s filed civil money penalty complaints against 36 manufacturers and 67 retailers, and sent out more than 650 warning letters to firms that lacked marketing authorization from the agency.