With the release of the administration’s new policy on flavored e-cigarettes, parents across the country have expected us — two volunteer parent advocates who have worked long and hard to promote nationwide action to prevent youth vaping — to be doing a victory lap.
It’s not that the administration didn’t do something. They just didn’t do much. On Jan. 2, they released a watered-down policy that took most flavored cartridges (or pods) — like the ones used by Juul — temporarily off the market, but left tobacco and menthol-flavored varieties of Juul and other pod-based e-cigarettes widely available. Also left on the market are thousands of flavored nicotine liquids, which can be used in refillable devices like Smok and Suorin that are favored by kids.
Even before the policy had gone into effect on Feb. 6, kids had already moved on to new products that have flooded the market: disposable e-cigarettes. Sold by brands including Puff Bar, Stig and Mojo, disposables come in flavors such as banana ice, cool mint and tropical mango, and have quickly become a popular choice among kids given their fun flavors, low cost and high nicotine content. (Puff Bar’s distributor claims they are halting sales, but there’s nothing to stop them from restarting — not to mention there are plenty of knock-off brands available.)
A single disposable e-cigarette can deliver more nicotine than an entire pack of cigarettes. Despite their obvious youth appeal, these disposable e-cigarettes are completely exempt from the administration’s new policy.
Meanwhile, even the industry’s rationale for e-cigarettes — “But they help adults quit smoking!” — has been undermined by a new Surgeon General’s report which stated “there is presently inadequate evidence to conclude that e-cigarettes, in general, increase smoking cessation.”
Here’s what we’re left with: Unlimited e-cigarette flavors remain available to kids — in formats both old and new — but have not been proven to help adult smokers quit. At this very moment, 15,000+ flavors of e-liquids, flavored disposable e-cigarettes and menthol Juul cartridges are readily available for purchase, and Juul is already working to bring other flavors back on the market.
This is not the time to celebrate. It’s time to redouble our efforts.
Unless federal, state and local governments take decisive action, e-cigarette companies will continue to cynically market their candy, fruit and dessert-flavored products to teens. The youth vaping epidemic — affecting 5.3 million U.S. teens and counting — will rage on, and more families will have their lives disrupted by this adolescent health crisis.
The Food and Drug Administration claims that the administration’s policy allows it to remove e-cigarette products that become popular with kids. But the FDA has always been steps behind a fast-paced industry, with Juul as the prime example. An endless game of whack-a-mole won’t end this epidemic. Only a ban on all flavored e-cigarette products will.
Here’s what needs to happen:
Pass federal legislation prohibiting flavored tobacco products nationwide. In contrast to the administration’s backtracking, Congress should vote to prohibit all flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and other flavored products like menthol cigarettes that appeal to kids, and take other steps to bring real regulation to the vaping industry. The Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act, introduced by Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), would do that. The House should pass it when it comes up for an expected vote Friday or next week — and the Senate should act as well.
Take action at the state and local level. Given the severity of this epidemic, state and local leaders cannot wait for the federal government to act. A growing number of states and cities — including Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York City — have passed laws banning flavored e-cigarettes. And Massachusetts set a terrific example by becoming the first state to prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco products. With San Francisco in the lead, at least 50 cities and counties have taken similar action against all flavored tobacco.
Hold e-cigarette companies accountable. The FDA needs to vigorously enforce its May 12 deadline for e-cigarette companies to apply and demonstrate a public health benefit in order to keep their products on the market. The burden should be on manufacturers to demonstrate that their products help smokers quit and don’t appeal to kids if they want to keep selling them.
The health of an entire generation of kids is at stake. When tobacco and e-cigarette companies no longer target our nation’s teens, luring young people into a lifetime of nicotine addiction, only then will we stand up and give applause where it’s due.
Meredith Berkman and Dorian Fuhrman are two of the co-founders of Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes (PAVe), a national grassroots organization created in response to the troubling rise of youth vaping.