Malbreaux: Ban Flavors for E-Cigarettes

A federal ban on e-cigarette flavors will discourage teen use.

by Tyler Malbreaux | 9/17/19 2:05am

While e-cigarettes are now, for the first time, attracting serious national attention, their popularity is nothing new to me. Nearly five years ago, there existed a sort of underground market for e-cigarettes at my private high school in Louisiana. The profiteers in this racket, a handful of sophomore boys, used all sorts of ingenious means to buy product to skirt legal age restrictions — fake IDs, siblings over 18 and online purchases made with Bitcoin.

What I saw in my high school five years ago is a reflection of what is happening nationwide ­— a nicotine-fueled epidemic in which those most likely to develop addiction are teenagers who were not previously tobacco smokers. Let’s face it: Vaping e-cigarettes is “cool” among young adults now in the same way tobacco smoking in the 1920s was stylish and sexy. This is because the big companies that make e-cigarettes sell candy-flavored e-liquids — the often nicotine-filled vapor inhaled by the user — to appeal to younger crowds.

The federal government ought to take swift action against these companies, first by banning the sale of all e-liquid flavors until further evidence can attest to the safety of ingesting the chemicals present in them. 

E-cigarettes were developed as a safer alternative to tobacco smoking. Kevin Burns, the chief executive officer of Juul Labs — the vaping behemoth that controls roughly three-fourths of the e-cigarette market — has warned that his company’s own products should not be used by those who are not already tobacco smokers.

Yet, it is hard to take Burns’ advisory notice seriously. Until recently, not only did Juul Labs offer such salivating e-liquid flavors such as mango, crème and cucumber, but they also continued to market their products as being safe. The Food and Drug Administration confirmed as much after reviewing congressional testimony given this past July, in which Juul publicly admitted to giving school presentations that told parents and teens that their products were “safer than cigarettes” and “totally safe.” 

But the usage of e-cigarettes is so recent, having only really taken off within the past decade, that any claims regarding their safety are premature at best. At the very least, advocates for vaping should be cautious given the recent surge of vape-related illnesses. As of last week, there are least 450 active cases, many involving teenagers, around the country of people suffering from life-threatening pulmonary illnesses. And there is growing consensus among doctors, health officials and government offices that these pulmonary illnesses are caused by the use of electronic cigarettes. On top of that, Bloomberg News reported that the FDA is investigating more than 120 reports of seizures, which occurred between 2010 and 2019, believed to be linked to vaping.

Vaping’s defenders claim that e-cigarettes are safe when products are purchased from reputable companies like Juul, and that the real blame lies in illegal modifications — often including cannabis e-liquid products — purchased off the black market. But that argument ignores the fact that users who vape black market products often also vape the legal products that are purchased from store shelves. Federal investigations into the current pulmonary illness cases have confirmed that while only some patients used cannabis products, but that all of the patients used some type of e-liquid.

While many have focused their ire at Juul Labs, to their credit, Juul has been the most proactive in reducing their product’s appeal to adolescents. In 2018, under mounting pressure from federal authorities, Juul Labs stopped accepting retail orders for flavored pods, which alone accounted for nearly half of the company’s yearly earnings. In addition, they implemented new photo ID requirements for online purchases and shut down their promotional Instagram account. 

But this has not been enough to stop teen usage of e-cigarettes from increasing by 20 percent from last year. While Juul has stopped selling some of their most popular flavors, they continue to sell menthol and mint, which could be a substitute for young users. In addition, other smaller companies still offer fruit and candy flavors.

This is why a federal ban on all flavors must be implemented across the board. The Trump administration proposed plans for such a sweeping ban this past Wednesday, modeling similar responses in Michigan and San Francisco. But those plans could take months before they go into effect. The country needs action now. The rise of vaping among this nation’s adolescents is a pressing health emergency. The spate of illnesses is already enough for a swift call to action — action which must be taken quickly before good intentions go up in smoke.