My Turn: Time to hold e-cigarette companies accountable for youth vaping crisis

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen AP

For the Monitor
Published: 3/14/2019 12:20:30 AM

When the e-cigarette company Juul began marketing its now iconic “vape pen,” its message was unmistakable: This is what young people need to be cool and fit in. This message was ripped straight from the Big Tobacco playbook and, combined with cutting-edge techniques on social media, it spread like wildfire.

While this kind of marketing has been a huge success for Juul and other e-cigarette companies, youth vaping has become a full-blown national crisis. Juul has since ceased its advertising campaigns aimed at teen audiences, but the damage has been done.

As many parents, teachers and school administrators in New Hampshire know all too well, we are now in the midst of a teen vaping craze that is hooking millions of middle schoolers and teenagers on nicotine, with very serious implications for their long-term health.

Schools in New Hampshire are doing their best to raise the alarm and protect their students. “We are seeing more underage use of vaping and e-cigarettes amongst students in our district,” says Dr. Jessica Huizenga, the superintendent of the Milford School District. “It’s affording an entry point for many engaging in more risky behaviors such as ‘dabbing’ and THC-infused liquids.”

Dr. Huizenga’s warning is backed up by statistics: Nationally, regular use among high schoolers has risen nearly 1,400 percent in just seven years. From 2017 to 2018 alone, e-cigarette use among high schoolers rose by 78 percent, demonstrating that this crisis is showing no signs of subsiding. In New Hampshire, approximately 24 percent of New Hampshire high schoolers report recently having used a vaping product. These statistics demonstrate that, sadly, in just a couple of years, all of the progress to get teenagers off cigarettes has been wiped out by e-cigarettes. There is also growing evidence that youth addiction to nicotine through e-cigarettes may lead to the eventual use of regular cigarettes.

E-cigarette companies laud their products as a safe alternative to regular cigarettes, which may provide some benefits to smokers who have struggled to quit. But, there is substantial evidence that e-cigarette use has severe health implications, particularly for young people who are in a critical time in their development.

Increased nicotine consumption is linked to liver damage, increased heart rate and blood pressure. E-cigarette use is also linked to lung damage, including a disease known as “popcorn lung” whereby a chemical found in some vape “juice” causes a thickening and narrowing of air sacs in the lung.

Perhaps most concerning, consuming nicotine at a young age often leads to a lifelong addiction. As the U.S. surgeon general warns, regardless of the delivery device, “exposure to nicotine during adolescence can cause addiction and can harm the developing adolescent brain.” A pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital, who’s also a professor at Harvard Medical School, put it this way to a reporter: “If you were to design your ideal nicotine-delivery device to addict large numbers of United States kids, you’d invent Juul. … The earlier these companies introduce the product to the developing brain, the better the chance they have (of becoming) a lifelong user.”

This is why we need to do everything in our power to protect children and teens from nicotine addiction. I believe it’s imperative that Congress recognize the severity of this crisis and take action.

I recently introduced legislation that would charge fees to e-cigarette companies to help fund public awareness campaigns and strictly enforce regulations. After I introduced my bill, the president put forward a similar proposal in his annual budget request. I’m glad the Trump administration is weighing in on this important issue, and I hope to work with the administration as I rally bipartisan support for my legislation in Congress.

There’s no question that e-cigarette companies like Juul fueled this epidemic, and they need to be held accountable to address it. My legislation establishes fees like those already levied on Big Tobacco that have helped fund successful federal efforts to reduce smoking.

Fortunately, the Food and Drug Administration has also begun to recognize the problem of youth vaping. The agency is cracking down on retailers who sell e-cigarette devices to minors. It has proposed rules that ban flavored products being sold to minors in stores and implemented heightened age verification standards online.

As the current commissioner of the FDA prepares to step down, I will be encouraging his replacement to build on these initial efforts. These steps that the agency has taken to-date are laudable, but they should be primarily funded by the e-cigarette companies, which is why my legislation would charge them fees based on each company’s share of the e-cigarette market.

Help can’t come soon enough, as schools across the country are fighting an uphill battle to keep vaping devices out of classrooms, hallways and bathrooms. It’s a mammoth task. These devices are easy to conceal and, in the case of a Juul device, look very similar to a thumb drive.

Unlike regular cigarettes, the vapor is also very hard for teachers and administrators to detect. As Dr. Huizenga points out, these efforts divert school resources and attention away from the fundamental job of educating students. She also warns that, “vaping in schools does not only impact students who are engaging in the harmful practice, but other students as well,” as extensive student monitoring and discipline have a very negative impact on the learning environment and school culture.

This is not a fight that parents and schools should be waging alone. We all have a responsibility to protect the next generation and shield them from the lifelong burden and harm of addiction. To that end, accountability is key.

Once again, we need to educate on the facts and crack down on the culprits. In the Senate, I’ll be working to build bipartisan consensus on my legislation and on this issue because it’s past time for Congress to join the fight to protect children from e-cigarettes.

(Jeanne Shaheen is New Hampshire’s senior U.S. senator.)

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