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FDA limits E-cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco

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(NBC News) - The Food and Drug Administration released its long-awaited plan Thursday for regulating e-cigarettes and other tobacco products — and says it plans to ban their sale to anyone under 18.

The sweeping new rule gives FDA authority to regulate — but not to ban — all tobacco products, from e-cigarettes to cigars and hookahs.

Anti-tobacco advocacy groups had feared the FDA would exempt cigars from the final rule, which will be open for public comment before it becomes final.

"The wild west is starting to be over."

The ban on sales to people under 18 will take effect when the rule becomes final in 90 days. Other provisions will take years to put into place.

Under a 2009 law passed by Congress, the FDA can regulate, but not outlaw, cigarettes and roll-your-own tobacco. The new rules extend its authority to all tobacco products that it "deems" it may regulate.

The new rules mean no more free samples, and the products may not be sold in vending machines accessible to people under 18. E-cigarettes and cigars will have to carry prominent warning labels.

"Tobacco use is a significant public health threat. In fact, smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States and responsible for 480,000 deaths per year," the FDA said in a statement.

E-cigarette makers have argued that their products are far less harmful than cigarettes are and say they provide an alternative that not only keeps people from using traditional tobacco products, but may even help them quit smoking.

"Youth use e-cigarettes more than any other tobacco product on the market today, serving as an entry point to more traditional tobacco products."

The FDA says it's happy to evaluate and regulate these claims. In the new rule, FDA notes that e-cigarettes may be less harmful than burnt tobacco, but says they're not completely safe. Plus, they can get people — especially children — addicted to nicotine.

"While there has been a significant decline in the use of traditional cigarettes among youth over the past decade, their use of other tobacco products continues to climb," the FDA said.

"A recent survey supported by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows current e-cigarette use among high school students has skyrocketed from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2015 (an over 900 percent increase) and hookah use has risen significantly."

"Youth use e-cigarettes more than any other tobacco product on the market today, serving as an entry point to more traditional tobacco products and placing kids at risk to the harms and addiction of nicotine and other tobacco products," said Harold Wimmer, CEO of the American Lung Association.

"Ending the tobacco epidemic is more urgent than ever, and can only happen if the FDA acts aggressively and broadly to protect all Americans from all tobacco products."

Advocacy groups welcomed the rules, although they say they do not go far enough.

"The Wild West is starting to be over," said Robin Koval, CEO of the anti-tobacco Truth Initiative.

"It's a critical first step but only a first step," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Both groups want limits on sales of flavored cigars and e-cigarettes, saying they lure kids to try them. FDA said it would take on the issue of flavors later. 

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