RJ Reynolds, the tobacco giant, has issued legal threats to small vape shops if they do not cease selling flavored vapes. Two letters obtained by STAT revealed that the shops have just a few days to confirm they will no longer sell flavored tobacco products. Failure to comply could result in “legal action, and the costs, attorneys’ fees, and adverse publicity to which a lawsuit would subject [the vape shop],” the letters warn. The letters, which were sent to stores in New Jersey and Alabama, also warn that the shops are violating local laws regulating the sale of flavored tobacco.
The letters are part of Reynolds’ campaign to force a crackdown on illegal vaping products. In February, the company petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban flavored disposable vapes, and it is supporting legislation in Congress that would do the same.
Growing Frustration with FDA’s Enforcement Approach
The letters also highlight tobacco companies’ growing frustration with the FDA’s scattershot enforcement approach toward flavored vapes. While all of these products are currently illegal, the FDA has only issued warning letters to a small number of manufacturers. One of Reynolds’ letters notes that the shop is selling Elf Bars, an increasingly popular disposable vape, which the FDA has not taken any enforcement action against to date.
Mixed Reactions to Reynolds’ Campaign
The letters prompted a mixed reaction from both critics of e-cigarettes and vocal proponents of promoting vaping as a safer alternative to cigarettes. Eric Lindblom, a senior scholar at Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute, who is critical of vaping companies, argued that Reynolds’ efforts could ultimately help public health. However, he added, “there’s something distasteful about these kinds of heavy-handed anti-small business tactics.” Clive Bates, an independent consultant and vocal proponent of tobacco harm reduction, also criticized Reynolds, stating that it should not be hounding vape shops for selling life-saving products to their regular customers.
Reynolds’ Position on the Issue
A company spokesman argued that the letters “show the importance that Reynolds places on removing these illegal products from store shelves and away from underage consumers.” Reynolds’ legal threats also come on the heels of a 2022 letter that it sent to its own retailers and wholesalers, warning that selling illegal products could result in “consequences up to and including termination of your [Reynolds] contract.”
It’s unclear how many letters Reynolds has sent to vape shops. A spokesperson said that the company has sent similar letters to “retailers across the country that we learned were selling illegal products in violation of flavored tobacco bans,” but did not specify how many letters had been sent.
Reynolds’ Opposition to Flavor Ban Legislation
Reynolds’ focus on enforcing flavored tobacco bans is noteworthy, given the company has actively opposed flavor ban legislation across the United States. Most recently, the company asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn California’s flavored ban on flavored vapes and menthol cigarettes. The company subsequently launched a line of “crisp” cigarettes, which legal advocates have argued violate the state law. Reynolds has argued the cigarettes can be legally marketed in the state.
Potential Legal Action Against Companies Manufacturing These Products
It’s also unclear if Reynolds is threatening legal action against the companies manufacturing these products. Elf Bar, for example, is owned primarily by Zhang Shengwei, a Chinese businessman who has reportedly become a billionaire thanks to his company’s surging popularity. In both letters, the attorneys argue that selling flavored tobacco products violates state unfair competition laws because the sale of unauthorized products “has harmed and continues to harm” Reynolds’ vapor business.
In conclusion, Reynolds’ decision to threaten legal action against vape shops selling flavored vapes highlights the growing frustration among tobacco companies with the FDA’s enforcement approach towards these products. While some believe that these tactics could ultimately help protect public health, others argue that they are heavy-handed and anti-small business. Ultimately, the future of flavored vapes in the US remains uncertain as companies like Reynolds and regulatory agencies continue to grapple with this issue.