I’m a moderate Republican with nearly 30 years of policymaking experience on Capitol Hill. Over the years, companies that want to know what “people like me” think have invited me to participate in their focus groups. Earlier this year, one such gathering was about e-cigarettes.
Did we think they were harmful? Did we know they helped people quit smoking? Other lead-the-witness questions followed. No one else in the room seemed bothered by this transparent effort to cast a dangerous product, like nicotine-packed Juul e-cigarettes, in a positive light. After all, nicotine is highly addictive and harms developing brains.
E-cigarette companies use flavors such as bubble gum, gummy bear and mint to appeal to and ultimately hook kids. With 5 million U.S. adolescents now using e-cigarettes, it’s clear that the strategy is working.
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These companies have paid social media influencers to make vaping look “cool” to teens, and they sell pods where kids can get to them: online, in convenience stores and in gas stations. As a result of these efforts, teen vaping is not some passing fad but a growing public health epidemic.
As the parent of teens, I knew all of this, but the rest of the focus group participants were seemingly unaware of what was happening to our children. If policymakers, too, have this blind spot and can’t see the public health crisis bearing down on us, we’ll be setting the stage for a generation of young people to face health consequences that experts don’t even fully understand.
The Trump administration was right in September when it announced plans to remove flavored e-cigarettes from the market. But according to reports, the administration may be backing away from its original proposal by exempting menthol flavors and possibly vape shops. The administration should not cave to industry pressure.
Only the elimination of all flavored e-cigarettes will protect our kids. Researchers say there are some 15,000 e-cigarette flavors on the market. If some are removed, kids will still have plenty of options to choose from.
In the face of enormous pressure from the public and policymakers, Juul recently announced it would stop selling several of its flavored products. But right now, there is nothing to stop Juul from putting the flavors back on the market or rebranding its popular mint as menthol, should that loophole remain, and once it thinks the pressure is off.
Delay here could prove disastrous, as we witnessed with the opioid epidemic, for which the nation is now paying in lives lost, families shattered and staggering costs in communities from coast to coast. Even as we are now beginning to deal with the opioid crisis and sift through the wreckage, we are missing the obvious warning signs with vaping.
Because the nation has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of teen smokers over the past couple of decades, Big Tobacco companies, who are major investors in vaping products, have sought out a new source of revenue. That’s why they have driven a new generation of customers toward nicotine addiction — a push made possible by an unregulated, do-as-you-please marketplace.
The companies have been successful, and teens have paid the price. Parents and pediatricians report kids suffering severe nicotine addiction and withdrawal that is causing health problems and disrupting their lives. The 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey shows that e-cigarette use among high school students more than doubled from 2017 to 2019. Now more than 1 in 4 high schoolers vape, and the number of middle- and high-school students who use e-cigs increased by nearly 3 million users in two short years.
Students are selling their classmates liquid nicotine pods and nicotine delivery products behind teachers’ backs. Manufacturers developed these devices to deceive; they look like flash drives, pens and even smartwatches. Vaping in class has become commonplace, and schools and parents are struggling to figure out what to do.
So, it’s also critical that Congress and the states pass laws to prohibit flavored e-cigarettes and keep these vital protections permanently in place. Several bills in Congress and one the D.C. City Council is considering would do that.
This is not a partisan issue, as governors from both parties, including Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.) and Charlie Baker (R-Mass.), have already taken action. The Food and Drug Administration should also begin enforcing the law that already requires e-cigarettes to undergo a public health review in order to get or stay on the market. And policymakers should crack down on marketing that appeals to kids and misleads the public.
As someone who knows life on Capitol Hill, I can say that just as with the opioid epidemic, politics has no place in this public health crisis — especially when the health of children is at stake. No matter the party, and no matter whether you’re a parent, time is not on our side.
Shellie Bressler’s time on Capitol Hill included work as a senior legislative assistant to Sen. Richard Lugar and as a staff member on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
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