I remember going to the restaurant down the street from my house as a kid for Friday night dinners and having the host ask, “smoking or non-smoking?” Of course, it didn’t really matter. Smoke permeated the entire restaurant, making our clothes reek and infusing our food with the stale taste of tobacco.
Now, we breathe free and clear not only in restaurants, but also in workplaces and other shared spaces. And a lower percentage of American adults smokes than ever before. That progress is thanks to hard work by consumer safety and public health advocates, including my predecessors at U.S. PIRG, who educated the public about the health risks, lobbied for policies to restrict tobacco marketing, and helped change the common perception that smoking was a regular and unassailable part of life.
From 1989 through 2013, PIRG and its partners helped pass public smoking bans in ten states. We worked to increase tobacco taxes and ensure that funding would go to health programs in eight states. U.S. PIRG also worked alongside national public health groups in the “Save Lives, Not Tobacco Coalition” to oppose legislation that would have immunized tobacco companies from lawsuit liability.
Now, we see the need to take up the mantle again. Young people are getting hooked on nicotine thanks to the rapid rise in e-cigarette use, commonly known as vaping. While health experts agree that e-cigarettes are less harmful than combustible cigarettes, the Surgeon General states that “any e-cigarette use among young people is unsafe.”
According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, e-cigarette use boomed by nearly 80 percent among high schoolers from 2017–2018, with one in five students reporting that they vape. That’s a serious problem for two reasons. First, e-cigarettes almost always contain nicotine, an addictive drug that impacts learning and brain development in young people, contributes to mood disorders, and increases the risk of future addiction to other dangerous substances. Secondly, research suggests that young people who vape are three times more likely than non-vapers to start smoking combustible cigarettes. That means the vaping epidemic, beyond potentially addicting millions of kids to nicotine, has also opened a possible gateway to increased use of combustible cigarettes by young people.
So, U.S. PIRG is launching a new campaign to end the nicotine trap and address the e-cigarette epidemic head on.
Four out of five kids who have used tobacco started with a flavored product. Tobacco and e-cigarette makers have developed tasty flavors that attract young people and mask the harshness of what they’re ingesting. That’s why we’re calling on the Food and Drug Administration to ban all flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco products infused with mint, menthol and other sweet flavors.
The FDA should also take e-cigarettes off the market until the products undergo the public health review that is required of tobacco products before they’re sold. Vapes are currently marketed and sold with little to no oversight, thanks to a bad judgement call by the agency. The FDA chose not to scrutinize e-cigarettes’ public health risks and potential for youth appeal because it believed the products could help adult smokers trying to quit. The American Academy of Pediatrics, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and other groups are suing the FDA, contending that the agency’s decision to “exempt e-cigarettes and cigars from agency review for years to come is unlawful and harms public health.”
To effect change, we need to educate the public about the health risks of minors using e-cigarettes. A recent survey showed that 40 percent of teens didn’t know that the e-cigarettes they vaped contained nicotine. And despite health classes throughout school, many people don’t learn the harms that come with nicotine addiction.
To fix that, we’ll partner with pediatricians to reach out to parents and schools and ensure that they have the resources to address the e-cigarette epidemic in their households and communities.
We’ll also mobilize a coalition of stakeholders in the consumer and public health communities to rally behind common goals to restrict youth access and appeal of e-cigarettes.
Advocates before me made important strides to reduce smoking. Let’s work together to make sure young Americans, and those not yet born, don’t fall into the nicotine trap with e-cigarettes.