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Photo credit: Christine Chessen

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Feeling helpless and confused about the rise of teen JUULing and the vaping epidemic?   So was I after finding what looked like an elongated USB drive and tiny empty plastic cartridges in my son’s backpack last summer.  He’s a top student at a top-tier school, a sports team captain, club leader, and was working diligently on college applications. I knew JUULing was getting popular, but never thought he would do it.

Since then I’ve questioned kids from schools in San Francisco where I live (and, unfortunately, where JUUL “Labs” resides) and have been told by many teens that in some cases up to 80% of their friends have tried and/or are regularly using flavored e-cigarettes.  “It’s normal, everyone does it,” they say. Testifying on March 27 in Sacramento in support of SB 38, California’s proposed statewide ban on flavored tobacco products, 15-year old Taylor Barker of Shasta County, CA, warned, “The probability that your kids and grandkids vape is very high.”

The latest research from the FDA bears this out:

Between 2017 and 2018 there was a 78% increase in the use of flavored e-cigarettes like JUUL among high school students and in that same period a 48% increase in use by middle school students.  That means more than 3.6 million young people are regularly using flavored e-cigarettes like JUUL.

JUUL’s Chief Administrative Officer, Ashley Gould, claimed at the March 27 hearing, “Smokers need a viable alternative to drive them from cigarette use.  Vapor products can fill that void, and flavors play a critical role.”

But at what cost to our kids?   California State Senator Jerry Hill, lead author of SB 38, shared this startling statistic:  “For every adult that quits smoking using e-cigarettes, 80 youth initiate daily tobacco use through e-cigarettes. 80!!   What’s the balance in that?”  

Wait….I remember the anti-tobacco wars my parents’ generation fought on our behalf.   I remember my grandpa smoking menthol-flavored KOOL cigarettes and admitting how horrible it was that he could…not…quit.   Wasn’t this all behind us?

Not anymore.  Big Tobacco 2.0 is back with a mission.  In the form of sleek and sexy vaping devices and fun, fruity flavors popularized by JUUL, they snuck back in to the business of youth nicotine addiction through the tech industry’s side door, luring millions of teens down this path.  So far, there is no viable cessation program for these kids. In fact, research shows that a kid who JUULs is 4 times more likely to begin smoking traditional cigarettes than a kid who does not JUUL.

JUUL and Altria, parent company of Philip Morris and now 35% owner of JUUL Labs, are using the same playbook on our kids that Big Tobacco used when it pushed menthol-flavored cigarettes into minority communities.  In addition to protecting our kids, prohibiting the sale of flavored products, including menthol, would address a social-justice issue that has persisted for decades. Targeted marketing to communities of color, low-income communities and LGBTQ communities has added to the health disparities in populations already subject to social inequities. African-American neighborhoods have disproportionately higher numbers of tobacco retailers and tobacco marketing, particularly of menthol products, a further study published by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine illustrates.

Here in San Francisco, a citywide ban on the retail sales of flavored tobacco products took effect on Jan 1 of this year.  But JUUL’s hometown has joined a growing chorus across the country by going further and demanding the FDA do its job. By law, before a new tobacco product goes to market, the FDA is supposed to conduct a review to evaluate its impact on public health.  Inexplicably, this has not been done for e-cigarettes. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, along with Supervisor Shamann Walton from JUUL’s district, and the cities of Chicago and New York, recently sent a letter to the FDA demanding that the agency do its job and immediately conduct the public-health review of e-cigarettes that was already supposed to have happened.

What can we moms do?   Start talking…. to our kids, our partners, friends, teachers, school administrators, and representatives at the local and state levels:   

  • Join PAVe – Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes and learn what you can do.  Check out their resources page which includes anti-vaping curricula you can share with your schools

  • Buy and wear a t-shirt from our partners at Athletes Don’t Vape, post a picture on social media, and be inspired by their grassroots story

  • Report potential tobacco product sales violations to the FDA at this link

  • Contact your local, state, and federal lawmakers to find out what’s going on in your area and how you can help

I’m now working with PAVe to rally support for the CA statewide ban on flavored tobacco products (SB 38) and a citywide ban in Sacramento.  (PAVe operates in a growing number of cities and states across the country.) I’m also working with my son to address his JUUL use and help him stop.  This adolescent public health crisis must be addressed at all levels of government and in our homes, schools, and neighborhoods. Our parents fought KOOL then, and we’re fighting JUUL now.  We’ve done this before. We must do it again.   


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