But many versions contain potentially addictive nicotine, and health officials believe they set kids who try them on a path toward regular cigarettes.
E-cigarettes are devices that heat a liquid into an aerosol the user inhales.
"The proposed measure by the FDA is long overdue to protect the health of African Americans and to reduce the deleterious impact of menthol smoking and tobacco use overall on America's health", NAACP health program director Marjorie Innocent said in a statement.
Gottlieb acknowledged that he could have taken more aggressive steps, "but I don't want to foreclose opportunities for now addicted adult smokers" to access e-cigarettes as they try to quit regular smokes.
The FDA is seeking to limit the sales of e-cigarettes to "age-restricted, in-person locations" or under "heightened practices for age verification" when sold online. "This is a hard compromise that I'm trying to strike, recognizing the public health risk posed by cigarettes still being available in menthol flavor".
Still, most scientists say e-cigarettes are far safer than traditional cigarettes, says David Abrams, a behavioral and population health researcher who studies tobacco control at New York University. "I don't want to create a situation where the combustible products have features that make them more attractive than the non-combustible products or a situation where those who now use menthol-flavored cigarettes might find it less attractive to switch completely to an e-cigarette", he note. One of the most popular devices, made by San Francisco-based Juul Labs Inc, has become a phenomenon at US high schools, where "Juuling" has become synonymous with vaping.
The plan to sequester the sale of flavored e-cigarettes rather than banning them comes as a surprise for many as a study released Thursday suggests that the number of high school students who use e-cigarettes has risen 77 percent since previous year.
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The primary concern most experts have about youth e-cigarette use is that most of these products contain nicotine, which is addictive, says Jonathan Klein, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of pediatrics at the University of IL at Chicago.
Health experts applauded the FDA move.
At the same time, the FDA announced a proposal to ban menthol in combustible cigarettes and cigars.
Some e-cigarette makers have already taken steps to curb sales to young people, including JUUL, a fast-growing startup which announced Tuesday it is suspending in-store sales of various flavored products and scrapping its social media presence.
"If the policy changes that we have outlined don't reverse this epidemic, and if the manufacturers don't do their part to help advance this cause, I'll explore additional actions", Gottlieb said.
"Our intent was never to have youth use JUUL products", CEO Kevin Burns said in a statement. "We'll leave no stone unturned".