Utah public health officials fear the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s first-ever authorization of an electronic cigarette to help curb tobacco addiction may be seen as a green light to use vaping products, especially by young people.

“I think the most dangerous thing that could arise out of this is the public misconstruing this as e-cigarettes are something that is safe,” said Ryan Bartlett, spokesman for Utah Department of Health’s tobacco prevention and control program.

Bartlett said the federal agency’s decision Tuesday to authorize the marketing of R.J. Reynolds’ Vuse Solo e-cigarette and accompanying tobacco-flavored nicotine cartridges “doesn’t mean that this is safe. All tobacco products are still dangerous. This one has just been shown to be a little less dangerous” than a regular cigarette.

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He said the state health department is considering new messaging aimed at middle and high school-aged Utahns to make sure they understand the decision is not “a green light to go buy vape products” as part of an ongoing $500,000 vaping cessation campaign.

Self-reported data to the state health department in 2020 found the rate of use of e-cigarettes more than doubled between middle and high school, with about a third of high school seniors saying they had tried vaping and just over 15% of those 16 and 17 years old saying they regularly used the products.

“When it comes to e-cigarettes, we’re most concerned about youth, people who are in high school, middle school and even into the young adult range,” Bartlett said. “Because that’s the age where if you start using this, there’s a fairly good chance you’re going to use for the rest of your life.”

In a news release, the FDA cited data showing the company’s “tobacco-flavored products could benefit addicted adult smokers who switch to these products — either completely or with a significant reduction in cigarette consumption — by reducing their exposure to harmful chemicals.”

But the federal agency also spelled out that while the decision ”permits the tobacco products to be sold in the U.S., it does not mean these products are safe or ‘FDA approved.’ All tobacco products are harmful and addictive and those who do not use tobacco products should not start.”

Ten other requests from the company for flavored products were rejected, the news release said, referring to the appeal of “flavors such as fruit, candy or mint” to young, first-time users according to a study. The rejected flavors weren’t identified, but the agency is still reviewing a menthol-flavored nicotine product for the Vuse Solo.

Todd Hillhouse, the former director of the neuroscience program at Weber State University in Ogden and now a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, said the federal agency appears to be trying to limit the product’s attractiveness to young people.

“I think the FDA is doing this right,” Hillhouse said, noting it took five years for the first product to be authorized under new regulations. “They’re making these e-cigarette companies provide data and evidence that it’s going to help somebody quit smoking, or that it’s safer than a cigarette,” while limiting flavors.

“Their argument here is this is only a tobacco flavor and most teens aren’t going to use it because it’s tobacco flavored,” he said, citing a study that found 81% of teens first tried an e-cigarette because they were attracted to the flavors available. “They’re really running this balance.”

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Still, the professor said, it’s a “major concern” that some will view the FDA’s action as “confirming that they’re safer. There’s this thought or perception out there that e-cigarettes are not harmful, or significantly less harmful, than cigarettes. But we still don’t really fully understand that. We don’t know what long-term e-cigarette use can do.”

It’s also not clear whether using e-cigarettes can help someone stop smoking, Hillhouse said, even though the amount of nicotine consumed can be dialed down. He said clinical trials are continuing, but the suggestion is smokers who start vaping are “more likely” to end up continuing to use both products.

E-cigarettes have been around since about 2007, according to The Associated Press, and Vuse is a leading brand, second only to Juul Labs in the United States, accounting for about a third of all retail sales. R.J. Reynolds, which owns Vuse, sells Newport, Camel and other leading brands of cigarettes.