From 2011 to 2015, current use of e-cigarettes among U.S. high school students increased more than tenfold — from 1.5 percent to 16 percent — and surpassed use of regular cigarettes, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey. Even though the 2016 Monitoring the Future survey shows the first evidence of a decline in youth e-cigarette use, e-cigarettes continue to be the most popular tobacco product among kids.
These trends stem directly from the irresponsible practices of e-cigarette companies. As the U.S. Surgeon General found in a 2016 report, e-cigarette makers have used the same marketing playbook cigarette companies used to addict generations of kids, with tactics like celebrity endorsements, slick TV and magazine ads that glamorize e-cigarette use and sponsorships of race cars and music festivals. And they’re selling e-cigarettes in literally thousands of flavors, including many outrageous, kid-friendly ones like gummy bear, cotton candy and pop tarts.
Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration acted to protect public health when it issued a long-overdue rule establishing oversight of e-cigarettes, cigars and other previously unregulated tobacco products. FDA oversight is critical not only to preventing kids from using these products, but also to determining whether e-cigarettes could benefit public health by helping smokers quit regular cigarettes.
However, rather than change their harmful practices and accept common-sense public health protections, e-cigarette manufacturers are pushing Congress to change the rules and make it easier for them to continue luring kids with candy-flavored products.
With the ink barely dry on the new rule, legislation has been introduced in Congress (H.R. 1136) to greatly weaken FDA oversight of e-cigarettes and other newly regulated products. In particular, this legislation would eliminate a requirement that products introduced in recent years undergo scientific review by the FDA to determine their impact on public health. It would take away the FDA’s strongest tool to quickly remove from the market products that clearly appeal to kids, including the many candy- and fruit-flavored products that have recently flooded the market.
Manufacturers falsely portray FDA regulation as an impediment to their ability to market products that will reduce the risk of disease to current smokers. The opposite is true. The Tobacco Control Act of 2009, which granted the FDA authority over tobacco products, was enacted explicitly to provide an objective, common-sense way to evaluate which products will actually reduce the risk of disease for tobacco users. Effective FDA regulation is the best way to prevent manufacturers from making deceptive claims and ensure that smokers have access to products that will actually benefit their health.
Make no mistake: H.R. 1136 protects the ability of tobacco companies to market candy-flavored e-cigarettes and cigars that have fueled the popularity of these products among kids. It does not inhibit the introduction of products that will actually help smokers reduce their risk of disease.
Research shows that flavors play a major role in youth use of these tobacco products. A government study found that over 80 percent of kids who have ever used tobacco products started with a flavored product. Among current youth e-cigarette users, 85 percent had used a flavored e-cigarette in the past month and 81 percent said they used e-cigarettes “because they come in flavors I like.”
Based on the evidence to date, the 2016 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on e-cigarettes concluded that e-cigarette use among youth and young adults “is now a major public health concern.” The report warned that youth use of products containing nicotine in any form is unsafe, can cause addiction and can harm the developing adolescent brain. The report also found that e-cigarette use is “strongly associated” with the use of other tobacco products among youth and young adults, including conventional cigarettes.
We still have a lot to learn about the public health impact of e-cigarettes. But our kids should not be guinea pigs in this process, and adult smokers deserve objective information about which products will actually help reduce their risk of disease.
Congress should support strong FDA regulation of all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, and reject the very harmful proposals that would help tobacco companies continue to target our kids with candy-flavored products.
Matthew L. Myers is the president for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
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