These are indeed challenging times while our nation battles the COVID-19 pandemic. But we can’t forget another public health crisis that long preceded this pandemic – tobacco use, which is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. We must continue the fight to protect kids and reduce the death and disease caused by tobacco use. In fact, the fight against tobacco is more critical than ever given the growing evidence that smoking and use of e-cigarettes (vaping) can impact risk for COVID-19.
Over the years, there has been a welcome decline in smoking rates thanks to the implementation of evidence-based policies that prevent young people from starting to smoke and help smokers quit. However, tobacco use still causes more than 480,000 deaths and results in $170 billion in additional health care costs in the U.S. each year.
In recent years, tobacco companies have taken advantage of lax Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight to target our nation’s youth and flood the market with thousands of flavored e-cigarettes, many of which deliver massive doses of highly addictive nicotine. In 2020, 3.6 million youth in the U.S. – including one in five high school students – were current users of e-cigarettes. The epidemic of e-cigarette use by our youth is driven by the relentless marketing and easy availability of flavored e-cigarettes, which has placed a new generation at risk for nicotine addiction and tobacco use.
The FDA has the authority to immediately take two critical actions to protect youth from tobacco:
1) Remove flavored e-cigarettes from the market: Given the clear evidence that flavored e-cigarettes attract and addict kids, the FDA should take immediate enforcement action to clear the market of flavored e-cigarettes. In addition, the FDA is currently reviewing applications from e-cigarette manufacturers to keep their products on the market. The FDA should not authorize the sale of any flavored and high-nicotine products that put our kids at risk.
2) Ban the sale of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products: The FDA also has the authority to end the sale of menthol cigarettes and all other flavored tobacco products, but has repeatedly failed to act. In 2011, the FDA’s own Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee issued a report that concluded “removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit the public health in the United States.” Menthol cigarettes are more addictive, increase youth smoking initiation by masking the harshness of tobacco, and make it more difficult for smokers to quit. Menthol cigarettes are also a likely contributor to higher rates of tobacco-related mortality among Black Americans, who have been the targets of menthol cigarette marketing for decades and, as a result, smoke menthol cigarettes at higher rates.
In addition to menthol cigarettes and flavored e-cigarettes, tobacco companies continue to target kids with other flavored products, like cheap, sweet-flavored cigars. These products must be eliminated as well.
Until the FDA acts, it is critical that states and cities continue their growing efforts to end the sale of flavored tobacco products. To date, five states and more than 300 cities have taken action.
Congress can act as well. In 2020, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2339, the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2020, a measure that would have prohibited all flavored tobacco products. But, the Senate never took up the bill. Hopefully, in the new Congress, both the House of Representatives and the Senate, will take up measures that will help to eradicate this epidemic.
In the meantime, we need to recognize how prevalent e-cigarette use is and the serious health risks these products pose to kids. Many of the products look like pens or flash drives and can be hidden and disguised easily. They are sold in a huge variety of kid-friendly flavors from gummy bear and cotton candy to mango, mint and menthol. A 2016 Surgeon General’s report concluded that youth use of nicotine in any form, including e-cigarettes, is unsafe, causes addiction and can harm adolescent brain development, which impacts attention, memory and learning. There is also growing evidence that young people who use e-cigarettes are more likely to become cigarette smokers.
This dangerous e-cigarette epidemic is putting millions of kids at risk and threatens decades of hard-fought progress in reducing youth tobacco use. It’s critical for parents, principals, administrations, teachers, and support staff to understand the dangers of e-cigarettes and how they can get involved in the fight to reverse the youth e-cigarette epidemic and help our youth stay free of tobacco and nicotine.
While pushing policymakers to act, we have to do our part and learn as much as possible and find ways to talk to our kids about vaping, e-cigarettes and tobacco use. For help on how to talk to your kids about e-cigarettes go to fightflavoredecigs.org/tips-on-talking-to-your-kids. And to learn more about What Parents Need to Know about e-Cigarettes go to fightflavoredecigs.org/what-parents-need-to-know.