The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Upholds FDA’s Deeming Rule

December 18, 2019By Rachael E. Hunt

For those following the war between the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) and industry over the regulation of vaping products, last week’s opinion by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upholding FDA’s so-called Deeming Rule is yet another battle won by FDA.  The unanimous three-judge panel held that FDA’s application of its regulations governing tobacco products to e-cigarettes is reasonable because such products are “indisputably highly addictive and pose health risks, especially to youth, that are not well understood.”

By way of background, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (“Tobacco Control Act”), originally signed into law in 2009, gave FDA the immediate authority to regulate cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, and smokeless tobacco.  At the time, however, any other “tobacco product” could be regulated by FDA only if the agency issued regulations “deeming” such other products to be subject to the Tobacco Control Act.  On May 10, 2016, FDA issued a final rule deeming electronic cigarettes (“e-cigarettes”), cigars, pipe tobacco, nicotine gels, waterpipe (or hookah) tobacco, and dissolvable tobacco products, among other products (collectively referred to for purposes of this blog post as “e-cigarettes”), to be within FDA’s regulatory authority under the Tobacco Control Act.  See FDA Final Rule “Deeming Tobacco Products to Be Subject to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, as Amended by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act; Restrictions on the Sale and Distribution of Tobacco Products and Required Warning Statements for Tobacco Products,” No. FDA-2014-N-0189, 81 Fed. Reg. 28,973 (May 10, 2016).  This subjected e-cigarettes to regulation by FDA through premarket review requirements, heightened standards for products claiming to be safer than other tobacco products (“modified risk products”), review of smoking cessation products as either drugs or medical devices, and a ban on the distribution of free samples.

As we previously blogged here, on the same day FDA issued this final deeming rule, Nicopure Labs, Inc. (“Nicopure”) filed a complaint in the D.C. District Court seeking to set aside the purportedly unlawful rule as contrary to the Administrative Procedure Act and a violation of the First Amendment.  After reviewing the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment, the District Court sustained the Tobacco Control Act and FDA’s Deeming Rule.  See Nicopure Labs, LLC v. FDA, 266 F. Supp. 3d 360 (D.D.C. 2017).  Nicopure appealed this decision.

Last week, on December 10, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the District Court’s judgement sustaining the Tobacco Control Act and its application to e-cigarettes.  Nicopure limited its appeal to three issues:

  1. FDA violated the Tobacco Control Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by not providing a less rigorous premarket authorization pathway for e-cigarettes.
  2. FDA’s premarket review standards for modified risk products violate the First Amendment.
  3. FDA’s ban on the distribution of free samples of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, violates the First Amendment by suppressing constitutionally protected expressive conduct.

In upholding the district court’s decision, the Court of Appeals found it “entirely rational and nonarbitrary to apply to e-cigarettes the [Tobacco Control] Act’s baseline requirement that, before any new tobacco product may be marketed, its manufacturer show the FDA that selling it is consistent with public health.”  With respect to Nicopure’s First Amendment challenges, the Court of Appeals concluded that the First Amendment affords manufacturers no protection against FDA preventing the sale of e-cigarettes as safer than existing tobacco products absent a showing that they are, in fact, safer.  As for FDA’s ban on free samples, the Court of Appeals held that free samples are not expressive conduct and “the government’s interest in preventing their distribution is unrelated to the suppression of expression.”

As of the date of this blog, it is unclear whether Nicopure will seek review by the Supreme Court.  However, even if this battle has ended unsuccessfully for industry, there are many more battles being waged across the country and the war is not yet over.  As we previously reported, vape shops in several states have challenged the constitutionality of the Deeming Rule under the Appointments Clause.

We will continue to keep our readers apprised of the results of these lawsuits as they unfold.

Categories: Tobacco