The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially acknowledged a link between a sixth death and the use of e-cigarettes. Following that, the Trump administration announced that the FDA will look to ban the sale of “unauthorized, non-tobacco-flavored e-cigarette products.” While a step in the right direction for this growing epidemic, this policy change will likely have little effect on the rash of underage use of e-cigarettes.
While the purchase of electronic cigarettes is illegal for minors across all 50 states, the core of this issue has always been how these products are marketed. In May, a study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics estimated that a majority of the JUUL brand’s Twitter followers were under the legal age to even purchase the product.
Earlier this week, following a congressional hearing specifically regarding JUUL’s branding and outreach, the FDA issued a warning letter to the company, asking them to ease up on claims that seem to suggest that JUUL is a healthier or safer alternative to cigarettes. The FDA took particular umbrage with statements made in a campaign targeted toward the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and those made by a JUUL representative in a high school presentation.
The CDC is trying to send a clear message – we cannot be sure of the specific cause of these recent illnesses, and no e-cigarette or nicotine product should be considered “safe,” at least until we have more information. While a ban on certain types of e-cigarettes may deter new users and save some people from the potential of this strange lung illness, it is the equivalent of throwing a cup of water out of a sinking ship. The epidemic of underage tobacco use will rage on.
Bear in mind that these steps are only to end the sale of “non-tobacco-flavored” products. E-cigarettes will still be on the market, just not in attractive, fruity flavors anymore. While this may curb a tide of new users who are attracted to the products based solely on their flavor, underage users are not getting addicted to the irresistible thrall of mango – they are getting addicted to nicotine.
Acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Ned Sharpless says in the recent announcement that “if we see a migration to tobacco-flavored products by kids, we will take additional steps to address youth use of these products.” If the “kids” are regular users of a nicotine-based product, it is not hard to imagine that they will move on to whatever alternative is available.
JUUL is owned by Altria Group, Inc., a company that used to go by the far more familiar name Philip Morris Companies Inc. If that doesn’t set off alarm bells, it should. The Philip Morris USA branch of Altria owns Marlboro as well. Whether you’re a Marlboro smoker weaning yourself off with JUUL, or vice versa, Altria sees the profit. No matter what the kids are smoking after these regulations take their full effect, “big tobacco” reaps the benefits of it.
It is imperative that we avoid these products until we are sure of the source of these illnesses, and that we sufficiently educate children on their dangers.