Thousands of unauthorized vapes are pouring into the US despite the FDA crackdown on fruity flavors

An employee on Monday displays some of the varieties of disposable electronic cigarette devices manufactured by EB Design, formerly known as Elf Bar, at Vapes N Smoke in Pinecrest, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

WASHINGTON — The number of different electronic cigarette devices sold in the U.S. has nearly tripled to over 9,000 since 2020, driven almost entirely by a wave of unauthorized disposable vapes from China, according to tightly controlled sales data obtained by The Associated Press.

The surge stands in stark contrast to regulators’ own figures, which tout the rejection of some 99% of company requests to sell new e-cigarettes while authorizing only a few meant for adult smokers.

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The numbers demonstrate the Food and Drug Administration’s inability to control the tumultuous vaping market more than three years after declaring a crackdown on kid-friendly flavors. Most of the disposable e-cigarettes, which are thrown away after they’re used up, come in sweet and fruity flavors like pink lemonade, gummy bear and watermelon that have made them the favorite tobacco product among teenagers.

They are all technically illegal, but their influx has turned the FDA’s regulatory model on its head. Instead of carefully reviewing individual products that might help adult smokers, regulators must now somehow claw back thousands of illegal products sold by under-the-radar importers and distributors.

Most disposables mirror a few major brands, such as Elf Bar or Puff Bar, but hundreds of new varieties appear each month. Companies copy each other’s designs, blurring the line between the real and counterfeit. Entrepreneurs can launch a new product by simply sending their logo and flavor requests to Chinese manufacturers, who promise to deliver tens of thousands of devices within weeks.

Once a niche market, cheaper disposables made up 40% of the roughly $7 billion retail market for e-cigarettes last year, according to data from analytics firm IRI obtained by the AP.

More than 5,800 unique disposable products are now being sold in numerous flavors and formulations, according to the data, up 1,500% from 365 in early 2020. That’s when the FDA effectively banned all flavors except menthol and tobacco from cartridge-based e-cigarettes like Juul, the rechargeable device blamed for sparking a nationwide surge in underage vaping.

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