Under pressure to curb vaping among young people, the tobacco giant Altria announced on Thursday that it would discontinue most of its flavored e-cigarettes and stop selling some brands altogether.
The company also said, for the first time, that it would support federal legislation to raise the age to 21 for the purchase of any tobacco and vaping product.
The Food and Drug Administration launched a campaign earlier this year against the makers of e-cigarettes, including the blockbuster start-up Juul, as well as major tobacco companies, that were marketing their products in ways that appealed to teenagers. The agency issued warnings on Sept. 12 to several companies, giving them 60 days to prove they can keep their e-cigarette devices away from minors. It also warned 1,100 retailers to stop selling the devices to minors.
In addition, the agency made a surprise inspection of Juul’s headquarters in San Francisco, seizing boxes of documents related to the company’s marketing strategy.
In a letter to the F.D.A., Howard A. Willard III, chairman and chief executive of Altria Group, said he was alarmed at the epidemic levels of youth e-cigarette use, although he stopped short of saying that his company’s products contributed to it.
“Although we do not believe we have a current issue with youth access to or use of our pod-based products, we do not want to risk contributing to the issue,” Mr. Willard wrote.
Altria’s move could pressure other e-cigarette makers to withdraw some products, including Juul, the dominant seller of the devices. Altria has a tiny slice of the market, while Juul, with its sleek device that looks like a flash drive, now controls more than 70 of it, and is valued by investors at $16 billion, according to Nielsen data.
Altria sells two types of vaping products through its Nu Mark subsidiary: the MarkTen and Green Smoke brand, which resemble traditional cigarettes, and the MarkTen Elite and Apex by MarkTen, which are larger and use an e-liquid pod inserted into a cartridge.
In its earnings call Tuesday, Altria said that 20 percent of its MarkTen and Green Smoke products have flavors other than menthol, tobacco and mint. It plans to stop selling these flavors, which include Mardi Gras, Apple Cider and Strawberry Brulee. The company will continue to sell MarkTen and Green Smoke in menthol, tobacco and mint.
”We believe that pod-based products significantly contribute to the rise in youth use of e-vapor products,” Mr. Willard conceded in his letter to the F.D.A.
The flavor-based pods are not a significant part of the company’s e-cigarette portfolio at this point. The MarkTen Elite is sold in about 25,000 stores. The Apex is sold on line in 10 states.
In a recent interview, Dr. Gottlieb said that while e-cigarettes may be a preferable alternative to combustible tobacco cigarettes, they are not risk free.
“Any time you inhale vape products, there is every reason to believe there are risks associated with it,” he said.
Dr. Gottlieb also noted that he was revisiting the use of menthol in certain products, which has been of particular concern in African-American communities targeted by makers of menthol cigarettes like Newport and Kools in years past. “It was a mistake for the agency to back away on menthol,” he said.
F.D.A. spokesman Michael Felberbaum said that the agency appreciated any voluntary steps that companies were taking to address youth access and appeal of e-cigarettes, and would be taking additional action shortly.
Becky Wexler, a spokeswoman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, was not impressed by the tobacco company’s move.
“Altria’s announcement makes them look good, but it will have little practical impact given their very small share of the pod e-cigarette market,” Ms. Wexler said. “It is not a substitute for mandatory F.D.A. rules that apply to all e-cigarette manufacturers, including a ban on flavors that attract kids and enforcement of the requirement for F.D.A. review before new products go on the market.”