Attempting to beat back the rise of vaping among teens, the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, voted this month to limit e-cigarettes and menthol cigarettes to the shelves of tobacco stores open only to customers 21 and older.
This comes on the heels of Massachusetts raising the legal age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21, which goes into effect on December 31.
Somerville’s move, the first of its kind in the state and possibly the nation, goes further by taking menthol and e-cigarettes out of shops, like convenience stores, that teens can enter. The new restriction in this city outside of Boston will go into effect on April 1, 2019.
“These products are being shamelessly marketed to teens, who have become their biggest users without fully understanding the health risks, which is why we’ve seen the Surgeon General calling for significant interventions to end this building public health crisis,” Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said in a written statement.
“We are rising to that challenge by becoming an early adopter of these regulations,” Curtatone continued, “and taking the necessary steps to stop the cycle of nicotine addiction among our young.”
E-cigarette use among teens skyrocketed between 2017 and 2018, according to a National Youth Tobacco Survey released by the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 3.6 million teens reported being current e-cigarette users in 2018, a jump from 1.5 million the year before. Use by high school students jumped by 78%, while use by middle schoolers went up by 48%.
Those findings, released in November, sounded new alarms about a growing epidemic.
“We still believe that non-combustible forms of nicotine delivery, such as e-cigarettes, may be less harmful alternatives for currently addicted adult smokers who still seek nicotine,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said last month.
“But as we’ve said before, we will not allow that opportunity to come at the expense of addicting a whole new generation of kids to nicotine,” he added. “We must close the on-ramp of nicotine addiction for kids even if it risks narrowing the off-ramp from smoking for adults.”
Other efforts to close that “on-ramp” have included prohibitions on the sales of flavored tobacco products, such as bubble gum and green apple, which critics say were created specifically for kids. In June, for example, San Francisco voters approved a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes.
Six US states including Massachusetts (as of next Tuesday) have raised the legal tobacco age to 21. The others: Hawaii, California, New Jersey, Oregon and Maine. And at least 380 local municipalities – including Chicago, New York City, Cleveland and San Antonio – took the initiative, often before their own states did, to institute the same, according to the advocacy organization Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Vince Willmore, the vice president of communications for the advocacy group, applauded Somerville’s move, saying he believes the city is “the first to limit sales of all e-cigarettes to adult-only tobacco stores.”
But Willmore said what needs to happen extends beyond local municipalities. He wants the FDA to take a stronger stand, too.
In November, the FDA suggested that new e-cigarette restrictions would be put in place, “but it’s not clear what that means or when it will happen,” Willmore said.
What he and his fellow advocates would like to see includes an end to online sales of e-cigarettes “until stronger safeguards are in place to prevent sales to kids,” he said.
He’d also like to see a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, unless manufacturers can prove that specific flavors are effective in helping smokers kick the habit.
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Those fighting the day-to-day war against teens’ use of nicotine, however, can and should take inspiration from local battles, Willmore said.
“What Somerville has done represents the kind of forceful action we need to address … [this] public health emergency,” he said. “It’s a good example of what other communities need to do.”