By EMERSON LYNN

There has been a 75 percent increase among high school students in the use of e-cigarettes this year compared to 2017, which this week prompted the Food and Drug Administration to declare it an “epidemic,” something the agency vowed to challenge through retailers and manufacturers.

Maybe, just maybe, we’re learning, we’re paying attention to the past. It took decades before there was an official recognition as to the deadliness of traditional cigarettes. Perhaps the agency in charge of the industry’s regulation has figured out that it’s better to intervene early, that its responsibility is to protect the nation’s health, not the profitability of the companies involved.

Maybe.

The FDA – through Commissioner Scott Gottlieb – took aim at the roughly 1,300 retailers selling the vaping devices, the purpose being to stop the sale of the products to minors. But the much larger effort is the potential ban on flavored e-cigarette liquids. Mr. Gottlieb contends there is a direct relationship between candy-like versions of e-cigarettes and the younger market, which explains the explosive use of vaping devices – Juuls, being the industry leader – among high school students.

Under the FDA’s ruling, the leading e-cigarette makers have 60 days to show how they intend to curb the use of their products to underage consumers. If the manufacturers can’t satisfy the FDA as to the plans’ effectiveness, the FDA would then consider steps including the removal of flavored products.

What we’re about to witness is a full-scale public relations war waged by a new industry that is as well-funded and sophisticated as any traditional cigarette company ever was, and with the same basic objective, which is to sell a product that is addictive.

Juul, as an example, was spun out of PAX labs as an independent company in 2017. A year later it has a market value of $15 billion. It also has 55 registered flavors, including such things as mimosa, strawberry, limoncello, Thai tea, etc. It’s the flavored varieties that comprise the bulk of their sales.

The irony, of course, is that e-cigarettes came into being as something that would help wean cigarette smokers to opt for something healthier.

But then, e-cigarettes evolved into a product that went beyond any anti-smoking effort. Juul, which has over 70 percent of the market, designed a product that was not only stuffed full of nicotine, but one that resembled a flash drive for computers. It’s cool looking because it’s technologically sophisticated. The product doesn’t have the smell of cigarettes, which makes it easy to hide. They’ve become a ubiquitous part of high school life, something that has also ramped up courtesy of the industry’s sophisticated social media campaign.

The deep concern of Mr. Gottlieb and most within the medical community is that as the population of e-cigarette users grows, so, too, does the likelihood that more users will eventually migrate to traditional cigarette use. E-cigarettes in general are still not fully understood, which is prompting the FDA to pull back a bit until the health care implications are clearer.

It’s important that Mr. Gottlieb and his agency are not bullied into backing down, an effort that has already begun. The targeted companies are playing the health care card, saying more people will resort to traditional cigarettes if their products are limited.

The companies are saying what the regulators want to hear, which is that their products are not intended for underage use and that they are spending millions of dollars in an effort to get that message out. That’s accurate as far as it goes. But what the industry also knows is that they have tapped a youthful market, and it’s a market that likes things that taste sweet, much like teenagers who start with cherry vodka and not the straight stuff.

Their product has evolved into something with mass appeal, not the sliver of the market that wants to get away from traditional cigarettes. What the FDA needs to do, is to establish that vaping doesn’t end up being yet another addiction that subtracts from the public’s health.

Last week’s move is that first step, and it’s overdue.

Emerson Lynn is co-publisher of the Colchester Sun and is publisher of the St. Albans Messenger, where this editorial first appeared.