Editor’s Note: Robin Koval is CEO and president of Truth Initiative. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
JUUL’s decision to appoint K.C. Crosthwaite, a longtime Altria executive responsible for building the Marlboro brand, as its new CEO sends a strong signal that the fight to ban flavored e-cigarettes is likely to intensify. Earlier this month, after a sixth person died of lung disease related to vaping — and that number is now up to 12 — the Trump administration announced that it would be taking measures to remove all flavored e-cigarettes from the market, excluding tobacco flavors.
This is a step in the right direction, as no one knows the long- or short-term health effects of vaping. But more needs to be done. Given their known appeal to youth, all flavored tobacco products, including flavored cigars and menthol cigarettes, should be banned.
Simultaneously, the Food & Drug Administration must do its job and not let the tobacco industry stand in its way. Not a single e-cigarette on the market, including JUUL, the most popular brand, has gone through FDA regulatory review. In 2017, the agency allowed the products to stay on the market while it delayed reviewing them — a decision a federal judge recently ruled against. The FDA should never have allowed e-cigarettes onto the market without determining whether they benefit public health — a major requirement of the Tobacco Control Act is to prevent just this type of situation.
It’s time to hit the stop button on this giant chemistry experiment being conducted on the public, a large portion of them teens and young adults.
At the very minimum, all flavored e-cigarettes, including mint and menthol, should be removed immediately because we know one of the primary reasons youth use e-cigarettes is because they come in enticing flavors. As a result, the number of high schoolers who use e-cigarettes soared to an alarming 27.5%, according to preliminary National Youth Tobacco Survey data, up from 20.8% in 2018.
Big Tobacco knows better than anyone that flavors are the reason so many teens vape to begin with, so it comes as no surprise that 97% of young people who vape use flavored e-cigarettes. Data also shows a dramatic rise in the number of teens using mint and menthol-flavored e-cigarettes — up to 63.9% this year from 51.2% in 2018. Why? Because when mint and menthol were excluded from flavors being “voluntarily” removed by JUUL in convenience stores, teens gravitated to them.
The FDA’s mishandling of the vaping epidemic has resulted in real public health consequences. Every day wasted also means more youth, most of whom were not smokers before, are at risk of becoming addicted to nicotine. Research shows that young people who vape are more likely than their peers who don’t vape to smoke traditional cigarettes in the future. In addition, nicotine affects the developing brain of young people. The tobacco industry — which makes billions by putting millions of young people in harm’s way — has to be stopped. The health of America’s children is not for sale.
The FDA must not succumb to the tobacco industry’s famous playbook strategy of “deflect and delay.” Adult smokers looking to stop smoking traditional cigarettes would still have access to tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes to help them do so. But the current environment is not about providing well-regulated e-cigarette technology for adult smokers who otherwise won’t quit. It is about growing market share among young people who have been called “replacement smokers” by the tobacco industry. The FDA must remove these products from the market until it is able to thoroughly review their safety and long-term health impacts.
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For our part, Truth Initiative is committed to helping end the youth e-cigarette epidemic through the proven effectiveness of our truth tobacco prevention campaign, just as we did to help drive down the use of cigarettes to historic lows. We are equally committed to helping the millions of youth who vape and are potentially addicted to nicotine to quit.
No one knows the short- or long-term health effects of e-cigarettes, but we do know what needs to be done to protect our children and the public at large: Remove all flavored tobacco products and regulate e-cigarettes immediately. We applaud all the steps that state and local government officials are taking, and encourage the FDA to follow the administration’s recommendation to remove all flavored e-cigarettes from the market, including mint and menthol. The FDA must act swiftly — and without further delay or interference by the tobacco industry — to end this growing youth e-cigarette epidemic and public health crisis.
Safeguarding the American public, especially our children, must come first. Every day of delay means the rising number of youth and young adults who use e-cigarettes are paying the price with their current and future health. We can do better than this, and we must.