Joe Murillo and Todd Cecil

Photo: Malcom Griffiths

The regulator’s view

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began issuing marketing denial orders (MDOs) for vapor products, the industry was understandably shocked. Many companies that had submitted timely premarket tobacco product applications by Sept. 9, 2020, had expected to first receive a deficiency letter and not immediately an order to remove their products from the market. Some MDO recipients complained the agency had “moved the goalposts” by suddenly requiring studies that it had previously said were not required.

At least three companies have filed lawsuits over their MDOs. All are accusing the agency of making “arbitrary” decisions and not reviewing the submitted data according to the statutes. In a “fireside chat” between Joe Murillo, chief regulatory officer for Juul Labs, and Todd Cecil, deputy director of the Office of Science for the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, during the recent GTNF in London, Cecil acknowledged the missing data that caused the flurry of MDOs is not required by the statutes that regulate tobacco products.

When asked what the “level of expectation” the FDA had in deciding whether to issue a deficiency letter or an MDO after a premarket tobacco product application (PMTA) was moved into scientific review, Cecil said that the agency followed “a randomized approach” to choose the applications the FDA would work on.

“The randomized approach identified a number of manufacturers’ products that went into this scientific review, and we … evaluated them from top to bottom,” he said. Cecil noted the agency began to see in some applications that “tended to have problems or missing materials that we needed in terms of benefits [of flavors]; that we learned we have to have that benefit piece … that evaluation that we spent several months working on taught us what we had to look for to be able to [conduct] a full scientific review.”

Cecil said that the agency just figured “if we know going right in that there are pieces missing, why will they go through a deficiency process and with a very short turnaround expecting to get back a full study that wasn’t completed previously?” So, instead of issuing a deficiency letter as required by statute, the FDA just handed out MDOs because the agency knew that it would take a company a significant amount of time and expense to conduct the new required longitudinal and cohort studies. Cecil was then asked why the agency filed the applications in the first place.

“We had to make a determinant how can we streamline this evaluation and determine those products that have at least the bare minimum for us to do a real and complete evaluation,” Cecil said. “This evaluation is not a standard. It is not a de facto standard or anything else. This is information that we need to see, but it’s not a requirement. An RTF [refuse to file] are those things that are required by the statute. And these studies are not necessarily required by the statute.”

The FDA has also been facing an unprecedented amount of scrutiny on how its handling of regulation of electronic nicotine-delivery system (ENDS) products and the PMTA process. Numerous health groups, anti-nicotine groups, states attorneys general and even members of Congress have criticized the FDA and demanded action. When asked if the FDA’s actions were influenced by these groups, Cecil said the agency focuses on science.

“We’re science-based,” he said. “We need look at what is presented to us in the application and in the laboratory. That is what we’re most focused on. If there is new data out there and that new data is brought to our attention through one of these [groups], then that’s fine. We would be happy to get those up and understand the bigger picture, all of the data … We need to evaluate those as scientifically or make a determination based upon that science.”

Only 100,000–200,000 products remain under FDA review. Of the 6.7 million submitted PMTAs, all others have received either a refuse-to-accept, an RTF or an MDO response. Cecil denied the agency was making a “categorical policy decision as opposed to an application-by-application decision” about flavored products. “We are stating that we understand that there is a significant youth initiation risk that comes from flavored ENDS products,” he said. “We are, in fact, reviewing all of those, and what we have found as we’ve done our reviews is that none of the literature is sufficient to demonstrate that there is not a youth initiation risk for individual flavors.

“We see that tobacco has a lower initiation risk. We see that menthol has some issues with it, and we are going to be evaluating that as we go forward. However, all of the data points to the flavored products as having significant youth initiation concerns. So what we’re looking for is an adequate indication that there’s a benefit on the other side of the equation. This is not a decision that we aren’t going to accept flavored products. Absolutely opposite. We need to ensure that there is concrete and robust data that demonstrates that there is an existing user benefit for those products.”

Cecil declined to say when more MDOs would be issued or when the agency would rule on major products, such as Juul, NJOY, blu and Vuse. “We continue to work diligently,” is all he would say. “There are a number of products that are well along. But no, I can’t tell you how many are those ones, but there are some that we’re hoping to move forward in the short term.”

The FDA’s recent action against flavored e-liquids does not mean that the FDA will never approve a flavored e-liquid, according to Cecil. He said that the rejected applications just lacked the required information that those products met the agency’s “appropriate for the protection of public health” standard. “You are welcome to reapply once you have addressed the issues that we provided to you,” he said. “And we will reevaluate that at a future date.”