By Toni Clarke
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hot on the heels of its proposal to lower nicotine levels in cigarettes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans on Tuesday for an education campaign to discourage use of electronic cigarettes among youth.
The plan follows the agency's proposal last month to both lower nicotine in combustible cigarettes and extend by four years the date by which e-cigarette manufacturers will be required to apply for authorization to sell their products.
Its new policy "aims to strike a careful balance between the regulation of all tobacco products, and the opportunity to encourage development of innovative tobacco products that may be less dangerous than combustible cigarettes," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement.
Gottlieb is walking a tightrope between satisfying the interests of tobacco control advocates, who like the idea of lowering nicotine levels in cigarettes, and e-cigarette companies that have been lobbying for a lighter regulatory hand.
But while they welcomed the proposal to lower nicotine content in conventional cigarettes, public health experts disapprove of the proposal to extend the deadlines by which e-cigarette companies will be required to seek authorization for new and existing products.
The plan means products with flavors that appeal to children will be available longer than they would have been without the extension. The new education campaign could go some way towards mitigating those concerns.
More than 2 million middle- and high-school students in the United States were current users of e-cigarettes and other vaping devices in 2016 and half of all middle and high school students who used a tobacco product of some sort used two or more, the FDA said.
Gottlieb said the figures reflect "the troubling reality that they are the most commonly-used tobacco product among youth."
The education campaign will be part of the agency's "The Real Cost" campaign to discourage cigarette use and will begin this fall. A full-scale campaign will be launched in 2018. It will start by releasing new digital material to educate youth about the potential for nicotine to rewire a teen's brain and create cravings that can lead to addiction.
The FDA said it estimates "The Real Cost" campaign to have prevented nearly 350,000 young people between the ages of 11 and 18 from starting to smoke from 2014 to 2016.
(Reporting by Toni Clarke in Washington; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Frances Kerry)