The Food and Drug Administration for the first time on Tuesday authorized an electronic cigarette to be sold in the United States, a significant turn in one of the most contentious public health debates in decades.
In greenlighting a device and tobacco-flavored cartridges marketed by R.J. Reynolds under the brand name Vuse, the agency signaled that it believed that the help that certain vaping devices offer smokers to quit traditional cigarettes is more significant than the risks of ensnaring a new generation.
“The authorized products’ aerosols are significantly less toxic than combusted cigarettes based on available data,” the F.D.A. said in a statement announcing the decision.
The statement concluded, “The F.D.A. determined that the potential benefit to smokers who switch completely or significantly reduce their cigarette use, would outweigh the risk to youth.”
The watershed decision could pave the way for authorization of some other electronic cigarettes, including from the once-dominant maker Juul, to stay on the market. For more than a year, the manufacturers of e-cigarettes have been in a holding pattern — their products on the market but awaiting official authorization — as the F.D.A. has investigated whether they were a benefit or a danger to public health.
Over the past few months, as part of that review, the agency ordered thousands of vaping products off the market, including a brand that has surpassed Juul as a favorite among teenagers for their fruity and candy flavors, Puff Bars. On Tuesday, the agency also ordered 10 other Vuse flavored products off the market but declined to say which products it rejected.
Condemnation of the decision was swift.
“This throws young people under the bus,” said Erika Sward, national assistant vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association. She said the concern was both with the broader logic endorsing these products but also with the Vuse, which in the government’s most recent survey on youth tobacco use was found to be one of the most popular vaping brands with young people.
Vuse’s owner, R.J. Reynolds, is one of the world’s largest cigarette companies. Juul is owned by another, Altria. Ms. Sward said that an industry that lied about hooking generations on a deadly product that killed millions was now positioned to control the next iteration of the nicotine market.
“The industry has been waiting for their next big thing and they found it with e-cigarettes,” she said.
Kaelan Hollon, a spokeswoman for Reynolds American, R.J.R.’s parent company, said the decision “represents an important moment for Reynolds” and that it showed that the authorized products “are appropriate for the protection of the public health.”