The law, enacted this summer and kicking in today, directs the FDA to crack down on candy and fruit-flavored cigarettes that public health officials say turn children into life-long nicotine addicts.
"These flavored cigarettes are a gateway for many children and young adults to become regular smokers," FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg told reporters.
The FDA has sent a letter to tobacco companies warning the agency will take action against those who continue to make, distribute or sell flavored cigarettes in violation of the law. Border agents have been instructed to block imports of flavored cigarettes.
Federal officials and tobacco control advocates could not say exactly how many people use these products. But Dr. Lawrence Deyton, head of the FDA's new Center for Tobacco Products, said they are favored by teens.
"Studies show that 17-year-old smokers are three times as likely to use flavored cigarettes as smokers over the age of 25," Deyton said.
Tobacco companies sweeten their cigarettes because "flavors make cigarettes and other tobacco products more appealing to youth," he added.
Deyton read what he called "a historic memo" from one tobacco manufacturer, outlining plans to directly target children by making "a cigarette that's obviously youth-oriented" and by featuring "flavor which would be candy-like but give the satisfaction of a cigarette."
Calling tobacco addiction a "public health catastrophe," one of the Obama administration's top officials, Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh, put the cigarette industry on notice that this is just the beginning of a "new chapter in public health efforts at tobacco control."
The law will require tobacco companies to register with the FDA. And Deyton said the agency will soon require those cigarette makers to turn over information about the "constituent components of tobacco products." The FDA will work with CDC scientists to investigate the safety of those ingredients.
An Unprecedented EffortAs for flavorings, the law specifically exempted the most popular one – menthol. But the agency is studying ways to close that loophole – and to regulate flavorings in cigars, chewing tobacco and snuff.
It's all part of an unprecedented federal effort to reduce what Koh said is a public health threat that causes 438,000 deaths – one of every five deaths - each year. Adults who smoke, he said, die an average of 14 years earlier than non-smokers.