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In 2009, not long after Dr. Margaret Hamburg became commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, a package arrived at her home. Inside was a clunky device called an e-cigarette.

“It was my first exposure to this emerging, new technology,” Dr. Hamburg recalled.

The package was sent by an antismoking activist as a warning about a product that was taking off in the United States. But over the next decade, the federal government — across the span of two presidential administrations — allowed the rise of a largely unregulated industry that may be addicting a new generation to nicotine.