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1.4 million illegal e-cigarettes seized as US government bears down on unauthorized sales

Boxes of Elf Bar and Funky Republic were seized during a joint operation between the FDA and US Customs and Border Protection.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Boxes of Elf Bar and Funky Republic were seized during a joint operation between the FDA and US Customs and Border Protection.

By Amanda Musa, CNN

(CNN) — The US Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday the seizure of about 1.4 million units of unauthorized e-cigarette products, including commonly used brands such as Elf Bar and Funky Republic, which has received warnings from the agency over the sale and distribution of unauthorized products that appeal to minors.

The FDA said that to evade detection, the e-cigarettes were intentionally declared to be toys, shoes or other items and listed with incorrect values.

“Unscrupulous companies try everything they can to bring unauthorized, youth-appealing tobacco products into the country,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf said in a 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.”

During a three-day joint operation with US Customs and Border Protection, the FDA says, it seized 41 shipments containing illegal e-cigarettes at a cargo examination site at Los Angeles International Airport.

All of the products originated in China, and they collectively have an estimated retail value of more than $18 million, according to the FDA. The seized products will be forfeited and destroyed.

Funky Republic and EB Create – the maker of Elf Bar – have not responded to CNN’s requests for comment.

In July, the agency issued warning letters to several distributors of e-cigarettes for selling and distributing unauthorized e-cigarette products that are popular with minors. Many e-cigarette products are colorful, and fruit- and candy-flavored products have surged in popularity among younger adults, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On a separate action Wednesday, the FDA sent warning letters to 11 online retailers over the unauthorized sale of similar products.

“For unauthorized tobacco products, the pendency of an application does not create any sort of a safe harbor to sell that product,” Dr. Brian King, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said in a statement.

Only 23 tobacco-flavored e-cigarette products and devices are authorized by the FDA to be sold in the United States. New products must receive marketing authorization before they can be sold; existing e-cigarette products have been allowed to remain on the market, but the agency has asked manufacturers to submit applications to keep them there.

A recent report from the CDC highlights that monthly e-cigarette unit sales surged 46.6%, from 15.5 million in January 2020 to 22.7 million units in December 2022.

Over 1 in 10 young adults in the US regularly use e-cigarettes, according to a CDC study. Elf Bar is one of the most commonly used e-cigarette brands among young people, the FDA’s 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey found.

E-cigarettes contain high concentrations of nicotine, a highly addictive chemical that can harm adolescents’ brains in particular.

The American Heart Association warned in a statement this year of the health risks of e-cigarette use.

“There is research indicating that nicotine-containing e-cigarettes are associated with acute changes in several hemodynamic measures, including increases in blood pressure and heart rate,” said Dr. Jason J. Rose, chair of the association’s scientific statement writing committee and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The group also warned that e-cigarette products can contain other substances, including THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis; methamphetamine; methadone; and vitamins.

As of this month, the FDA has issued over 650 warning letters to firms for manufacturing, selling and distributing new tobacco products without the correct marketing authorization. The agency has also filed civil money penalty complaints against 38 manufacturers and 67 retailers over the illegal sale of e-cigarettes. The distributors have 15 days to respond with steps to correct and prevent violations.

“The FDA will continue to take appropriate action against those manufacturing, distributing, importing and/or selling unauthorized e-cigarette products, especially those most appealing to youth,” the agency says.

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