WASHINGTON (AP) — House lawmakers are demanding information from federal officials on what they are doing to stop the recent influx of kid-appealing electronic cigarettes from China.
Members of a new congressional committee on U.S.-China relations sent the request Thursday to Justice Department and Food and Drug Administration leaders, calling attention to "the extreme proliferation of illicit vaping products."
The letter cites Associated Press reporting on how thousands of new disposable e-cigarettes have hit the market in recent years, mostly manufactured in China and sold in flavors like watermelon and gummy bear.
The FDA has declared all such products illegal. Companies seeking to sell e-cigarettes in the U.S. are required to first seek permission from the FDA, though many of the products imported from China have skipped that step. The agency has only authorized a tiny handful of tobacco-flavored vapes for adult smokers.
In May, the agency called on customs officials to block imports of Elf Bar, a small, colorful vaping device that is the No. 1 choice among teenagers.
The AP has reported that the company behind Elf Bar has been able to evade the ban by simply renaming its products, which remain widely available in convenience stores and vape shops.
"We ask you to work with the Customs and Border Protection to address this urgent problem with all due speed," states the bipartisan letter from 12 members of the committee, including Chairman Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and ranking Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois.
The special committee was established early this year with the goal of countering Chinese policies that can damage the U.S. economy. Tensions between the two countries have been rising for years, with both China and the U.S. enacting retaliatory measures on imports.
The committee's inquiry comes amid an improving picture for teen vaping. Last month, an annual government survey showed the percentage of high school students using e-cigarettes fell to 10% from 14% in 2022.
Still, more than 2.1 million students continue to vape. More than half say they use Elf Bar, double the rate of any other brand.
The FDA's tobacco center has recently stepped up actions against stores selling illegal e-cigarettes following a blistering assessment of the agency's track record earlier this year. Among other steps, the FDA-commissioned report called on regulators to work more closely with other federal agencies to clear the market of unauthorized e-cigarettes.
FDA leaders have pointed out that they rely on the Justice Department to prosecute cases against vaping companies identified by tobacco regulators. But in many instances, prosecutors may decide against filing charges for various reasons.
In their letter, lawmakers specifically ask the head of the Justice Department's consumer protection branch whether he "has sufficient resources or expertise to litigate vapor-related referrals from FDA."
Lawmakers are seeking answers to more than a half-dozen questions by Jan. 15.