Here we go again. Just when the decades-long battle to eliminate tobacco use has achieved notable successes, the U.S. has been hit with the effects of another nicotine product that is arguably just as addictive—and as dangerous.
Sixteen deaths and 800 hospitalizations nationwide have so far been tied to vaping, as the use of flavored electronic cigarettes—commonly known as vape pens—has become increasingly popular among U.S. teens.
While Michigan, Massachusetts and New York State have already issued bans on vape pens, which have been linked to severe lung injuries, many believe this isn’t enough.
When e-cigarettes were first imported to the U.S. in 2006, they seemed to be the light at the end of the tunnel for the struggle against the centuries-long addiction to tobacco and nicotine.
Now they have become a new scourge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that more than 25 percent of high schoolers vape, and most of those teens are not yet old enough to legally purchase vape machines or cartridges.
A criminal probe is currently underway into Juul Labs, Inc., the maker of the most popular brand of e-cigarette, following a warning from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) addressing the manufacturer’s false claims that vaping is a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.
According to health experts, while vaping products contain far less of the toxic chemicals found in cigarettes. such as tar, they do contain addictive nicotine, according to a recent NPR report.
The long-term consequences of vaping are unknown, but experts say the fact that e cigarettes contain significantly more nicotine than traditional cigarettes makes them extremely dangerous to adolescents. Because the adolescent brain is still developing, many of the individuals hospitalized have been treated for nicotine poisoning.
Adding to the problem, many of the victims of vaping illnesses are believed to have used black market THC pods to smoke marijuana out of their e-cigarette devices. In states where marijuana is not yet legal, individuals are purchasing counterfeit THC pods on the black market, one factor which is believed to have contributed to the illnesses.
Although many Americans support banning e-cigarettes altogether, nearly 60 percent also report being concerned that a ban will increase black market sales. They’re right to be concerned. Recently, two brothers in Milwaukee were arrested after police found more than 10,000 grams of THC in a counterfeit vaping-cartridge operation.
The majority of the victims treated for nicotine poisoning upon hospitalization have been under the age of 18, which has led some parents of those affected file claims against the manufacturer. These plaintiffs allege that Juul illegally marketed its products to teenagers.
The e-cigarette marketing tactics, and arguments in favor of restrictions, are similar to those used in the struggle to curtail tobacco use, especially for minors. Will they work the same way?
Marketing tobacco products to adolescents has been illegal in the U.S. since 2009. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed by President Barack Obama on June 22, 2009, gave the FDA authority to regulate the manufacturing, marketing, and sale of tobacco products.
Citing the law, the FDA’s warning letter to Juul Labs included a passage detailing how the manufacturer targeted teens in its advertising campaigns.
Stanford University School of Medicine published a research paper in January 2019 tracking Juul’s marketing over the course of three years, and found that teens aged 15-17 years were “16 times more likely to be current JUUL users than the 25-34 year old group (surveyed).”
Intensifying the government’s efforts to halt e-cigarette use, acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, M.D., released a statement in September 2019 reiterating that restriction of all tobacco and nicotine product sales to minors is a top priority of the agency.
His statement also declared that the FDA is working to create a comprehensive policy dedicated specifically to e-cigarette consumption, restriction and the future of its sales.
Recently, Altria, the 35 percent owner of Juul Labs, ended talks with competing tobacco giant Philip Morris. The two tobacco companies, which each own several brands of traditional cigarettes, had been discussing a merger that would increase Philip Morris’ stake in the e-cigarette market. This discussion ended within days of the announcement that Juul’s CEO was stepping down due to negative press and an unfavorable company image.
Some manufacturers have already taken action. Walmart announced last month it would stop selling e-cigarettes amid the “growing federal, state and local regulatory complexity and uncertainty” regarding the products, USA TODAY reported.
To meet that challenge, the feds have proposed a ban on all flavored e-cigarette pods, and the FDA expects to publish a tougher e-cigarette policy within the next few weeks. This policy is intended to outline regulations for sales, age restrictions, marketing regulations, and may enable law enforcement officers and government officials to prosecute cases against manufacturers.
In the meantime, however, it is not enough for consumers to wait for further regulation and safety guidelines.
E-cigarettes need to be treated with as much concern as traditional cigarettes— if not more. Parents should make clear the dangers of these devices, and prospective sellers should take heed.
The possibility of an unexpected illness increases drastically from the moment that an individual begins vaping, and illnesses can occur just months after these deadly habits are formed.
It would be a tragedy if the nation’s success in kicking the cigarette habit was undermined by our youths’ flirtation with vaping.
Bridget Doherty is a freelance writer on health issues, based in Syracuse, N.Y.