Taking the flavor out of e-cigarettes

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Smoking electronic cigarettes, known as vaping, has taken off in spectacular fashion in the United States, especially among school-aged children. Introduced in 2007, e-cigarettes were the most common type of tobacco product used by people under 18 by 2014.

According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2011, 220,000 high school students used e-cigarettes, but by 2018, that number had increased to 3.05 million or about 27.7% of the high school population in the U.S. Among middle school students, in 2011, 60,000 students used e-cigarettes; by 2018, that had increased to 570,000 students or 4.9% of the middle school population.

There was a significant increase among e-cigarette use among students from 2017 through 2018, and this, according to CDC, “is likely because of the recent popularity of e-cigarettes shaped like a USB flash drive, such as JUUL; these products can be used discreetly, have a high nicotine content and come in flavors that appeal to youths.” (JUUL cartridges contain chemicals but do not create vapor.)

It is illegal, of course, for either group of students to purchase and use e-cigarettes or vaping products, but they can easily buy e-cigarettes online. There is a dizzying array of products available for children to suck into their lungs. The products that most concern politicians have flavors that seem to be targeted to children. There are vape flavors available like tropic bubblegum, candy king and strawberry watermelon bubblegum. Last week both President Donald Trump and Gov. Andrew Cuomo said they are looking into possible bans on flavored products, leaving only traditional tobacco flavored products available.

Cuomo held a press conference and noted that six deaths nationally have been linked to e-cigarettes in recent weeks, along with hundreds of cases of lung disease. He said there are 41 cases of e-cigarette-linked lung illness in New York State, and he said that policy makers don’t even know the ingredients of many e-cigarette products. During a news conference he said, “It’s an activity that many young people engage in, and common sense says if you don’t know what you are smoking, don’t smoke it, and right now we don’t know what you’re smoking in a lot of these vaping substances.” He said the New York State Department of Health (DOH) is going to investigate these products and issue subpoenas to manufacturers to find out what the vape and e-cigarette products are made of.

DOH commissioner Howard Zucker was also at the news conference and one ingredient that may be cause for concern is an oil called vitamin E acetate. Zucker said DOH has found high levels of vitamin E acetate in the samples tested thus far. He said, “When high levels of vitamin E are inhaled into your lung, all the way down to the small air sacs in the lung, it can damage the lung since those air sacks are where you get oxygen into your body. Obviously you can get quite ill.”

Trump’s announcement regarding the coming Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban regarding the flavored e-cigarette products drew support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the non-profit founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which also announced a $160 million, three-year initiative to help prevent the sale and marketing of e-cigarette products to kids.

Bloomberg himself responded with this statement: “The FDA’s announcement that it will clear flavored e-cigarettes from the market is the right one, but words are not enough. This decision is long overdue—the timeline for action is yesterday, not tomorrow. The agency must now move quickly to adopt a flavor ban that is comprehensive and that takes effect immediately. And it’s up to us, the public, to hold them accountable—and I intend to do exactly that.

The people who toil in the $2.6 billion industry and who own the approximately 20,000 vape shops in the country are likely to fight the ban in court.

Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, released the following statement: “We are deeply disappointed in the President’s decision to take direction from anti-vaping activists like Mike Bloomberg by attempting to ban the sale of nearly every vaping product on the market. A ban will remove life-changing options from the market that have been used by several million American adults to quit smoking.

“In the history of the United States, prohibition has never worked. It didn’t work with alcohol. It hasn’t worked with marijuana. It won’t work with e-cigarettes. The President should meet with just one of the millions of American voters who have used flavors to quit smoking before moving forward on this draconian approach to regulation and public policy.”

If this were truly only about giving smokers a way to kick the habit, that could be done by granting prescriptions for vape products and e-cigarettes. But the industry is clearly targeting children, and as a society we should take important steps to reduce the number of child vapers. The public campaigns against smoking have driven the number of smokers in the U.S. to historic lows. The vape industry should never have been allowed to take root to begin with.

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