(WJHL)- Data suggests the Food and Drug Administration is ramping up undercover inspections of vape vendors in Tennessee.
Stores that sell e-cigarette products can be issued a warning letter, a fine or even lose the ability to sell tobacco products for selling to underaged customers in FDA stings.
Since September 2016, the FDA has recorded violations against 366 stores in Tennessee. About 52 percent of the total violations and 67% of “civil money penalties” have occurred since January 1, 2019.
“They [the FDA] just started regulating the electronic cigarette industry in 2016 and so since they’ve done that they’ve increased enforcement actions,” said Rocky Top Vapor Owner David Nelson. “I think they’re trying to figure out how teens are getting ENDS [electronic nicotine delivery systems].”
Only three stores in Northeast Tennessee have been issued warning letters since the FDA began overseeing e-cigarettes. All three of those violations occurred at gas stations in 2017 or before. Store managers for these locations declined to comment.
So far this year, no violations have been documented in Northeast Tennessee, even as major cities in the state see a significant increase in enforcement efforts. Almost none of the violations in Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville were against specialty vape shops.
“I’ve been in the industry now for seven years and I know a lot of vape shop owners. I would personally be shocked to find out that a vape shop was intentionally selling to a minor,” said Planet Vapor CEO David Saylor. “That’s just not something we do. We’re here to help people quit smoking and there are enough adults that want to vape.”
“Maybe flavored products only need to be available in vape shops that are adult-only facilities. I think that would help combat teen use and get rid of the locations that teens can actually purchase these products,” Nelson said.
Data also suggests enforcement varies by location. Major cities in Tennessee also had many more passed inspections recorded in 2019. There were only six in Northeast Tennessee, including Planet Vapor and Rocky Top Vapor.
In Tennessee, the FDA has never prohibited a store from selling tobacco products, according to the agency’s database. Its website says, for that to happen, it would require five or more repeated violations within a three-year period.
When asked if the FDA should allow fewer chances, Nelson said, “If you strike out three times you know and you’re selling to underaged people I think something serious should happen.”
“One part of me wants to say yeah you should only get a couple of warnings. The other part says it depends on the circumstances,” Saylor said.
Both Saylor and Nelson said they would support state licensure of vape vendors.
That way, lawmakers could set stricter standards than the FDA.