Failing to Protect: The Regulatory Industry’s Challenge in Curbing Nicotine Addiction Among Adolescents

Failing to Protect: The Regulatory Industry’s Challenge in Curbing Nicotine Addiction Among Adolescents 

Mariam Salmanzadeh 

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2025

In the battle against nicotine addiction, particularly among our nation’s youth, the regulatory industry stands as a crucial line of defense. However, recent developments suggest that this block is faltering, leaving our young generation increasingly vulnerable to the grips of addiction. Despite well-intentioned efforts, the regulatory landscape surrounding nicotine products has proven inadequate in safeguarding young adults from the harmful effects of addiction. In this blog post, we will explore the shortcomings of current regulations and propose actionable solutions to address this pressing issue.

Regulatory landscape

Since the passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (commonly called the Tobacco Control Act) in 2009, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has regulated the manufacturing, distribution, and marketing of tobacco products. In 2016, the Deeming Rule extended the FDA’s tobacco product authority to cover more tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. Under the Tobacco Control Act, the FDA has implemented various measures to restrict youth access to tobacco products, including age verification requirements and marketing restrictions. However, loopholes in these regulations, such as exemptions for flavored cigars and certain vaping products, have allowed youth-friendly products like Zyn to proliferate.

In response to the increase of non-tobacco-nicotine (NTN) in popular tobacco products, Congress passed a federal law that went into effect on April 14, 2022, clarifying the FDA’s authority to regulate tobacco products containing nicotine from any source, including synthetic nicotine. Manufacturers of NTN products who want to market their products must submit an application before marketing their product and obtain FDA authorization, or they will be subject to FDA enforcement.

Additionally, state and local governments have enacted their own regulations to combat youth nicotine addiction. Recently, New York Senator Chuck Schumer addressed the FDA in a press conference, claiming that nicotine pouches pose a danger to teens as they use them as an alternative to e-cigarettes. Schumer urged the FTC and FDA to investigate Zyn for marketing and health effects concerns. 

These measures often include raising the legal age for tobacco and vaping product purchases, implementing flavor bans, and imposing restrictions on the sale and marketing of nicotine products near schools and youth-oriented facilities. Last year, Cook County of Illinois passed an ordinance restricting retailers from selling, giving away, bartering, exchanging, or otherwise furnishing any other person with any flavored liquid nicotine product. 

While these efforts are commendable, inconsistent enforcement and varying levels of regulation across jurisdictions contribute to gaps in protection and higher rates of addiction in some states more than others. 

Challenges in enforcement

One of the primary challenges facing regulatory bodies is effectively enforcing existing regulations. When the Trump administration passed Tobacco 21 (T21) in 2019, raising the national tobacco purchasing age from eighteen years old to twenty-one years old, the country saw this as progress towards a consensus in regulating the tobacco industry. The FDA takes a multi-pronged approach to help the industry comply with the law by developing and providing compliance training and education, as well as monitoring the regulated industry’s compliance with the FDA’s law through surveillance, inspections, and investigations. The FDA can also take action when necessary by issuing Warning LettersCivil Money Penalty (CMP) ComplaintsNo-Tobacco-Sale Order (NTSO) ComplaintsImport Alerts, conducting seizures, Injunctions, and Criminal Prosecution. 

However, the results from the Annual National Youth Tobacco Survey in 2023 showed that more than 2.1 million youths used an e-cigarette device, and almost nine out of ten current e-cigarette users (89.4%) used flavored e-cigarettes. Fruit flavors were the most popular, followed by candy, desserts, or other sweets, mint, and menthol. So, how is the FDA really enforcing the regulation of these flavored nicotine devices if they are still popular among adolescents? 

The most likely answer is that regulatory agencies often face resource constraints and competing priorities, limiting their ability to dedicate sufficient attention and resources to combating youth nicotine addiction. In 2022, the Office of the Inspector General issued a report criticizing the FDA for its lack of oversight of online tobacco retailers, claiming that children’s use of tobacco remains of a “high concern” and that online sales are an easy way for kids to buy products without having to verify their ages.

Moving forward

Because of the FDA’s heavy workload, enforcement actions may be sporadic and reactive rather than proactive, allowing harmful products and marketing tactics to persist unchecked. A coordinated and comprehensive approach is needed to strengthen regulatory efforts in protecting youth from nicotine addiction. Regulatory bodies must prioritize the enforcement of existing regulations, including strict monitoring of online sales and aggressive action against retailers who violate age restrictions. Additionally, Congress should make efforts to close loopholes in regulations and strengthen penalties for non-compliance.

Combating youth nicotine addiction requires robust and effective regulatory oversight from both federal and local authorities. By addressing gaps in regulation, enhancing enforcement efforts, and implementing targeted prevention strategies, regulatory bodies can better fulfill their mandate to protect our nation’s youth from the harmful effects of nicotine addiction. Regulatory bodies and federal and local governments must prioritize the health and well-being of our youth and take decisive action to address this pressing public health issue.