Any adult knows that if you want to get a child’s attention, there is no enticement like candy.
This currency of youth has become the weapon of choice for tobacco companies. They are making huge investments in nicotine-loaded e-cigarettes and selling them in a rainbow of sweet and fruity flavors like cotton candy, gummy bear, mango and mint. They’re turning millions of young people into addicted customers, all the while insisting that they aren’t targeting kids at all.
But we know Big Tobacco’s playbook. We’ve seen this before. It is targeting kids — and putting them in serious danger.
Federal health officials announced on Friday that vaping could be the cause of at least 450 possible cases of severe lung disease — with five confirmed deaths — in 33 states. Many of the affected people are teenagers. And on Monday, the Food and Drug Administration said that Juul, the leading e-cigarette company, has violated federal regulations in promoting its tobacco products as healthier than traditional cigarettes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that people who use e-cigarettes should consider stopping and that children should not use e-cigarettes at all. Yet the number of young users is jarring. One in five high school students used e-cigarettes in 2018, an increase of 78 percent over 2017. E-cigarette use was up by nearly 50 percent among middle schoolers in the same period. More than three and a half million American children now use e-cigarettes, with 97 percent of users aged 12 to 17 choosing flavored products.
This is an urgent health crisis, and tobacco companies are behind it. They are major players in the e-cigarette market — including Altria, the tobacco giant and parent company of Marlboro, which paid roughly $13 billion for a stake in Juul. To those of us on the front lines of the fight against tobacco use, the tactics companies are employing to sell e-cigarettes — flavorings, unfounded health claims and the hiring of celebrity promoters — are all too familiar. They are the same strategies that tobacco companies have long used to get kids to try cigarettes.
There’s still much we don’t know about the connection between lung illness and vaping. But we do know that one Juul pod contains about as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes, and that nicotine harms brain development.
Even worse, studies show that kids who use e-cigarettes are more likely to use real cigarettes. E-cigarette companies insist their goal is to help people quit smoking. But 13-year-olds don’t start using cotton-candy-flavored pods for Juul devices to kick a cigarette habit. Much more often, e-cigarettes lead kids directly to nicotine addiction.
Banning flavored e-cigarettes is the most important thing we can do to reduce use among young people. A number of cities have passed local bans, including San Francisco, which is home to Juul’s corporate headquarters. Last week, Michigan became the first state to ban flavored e-cigarettes.
These are important steps, but we must act more boldly and quickly, starting with a national ban on flavored e-cigarettes. Each day that passes allows more children to be ensnared in Big Tobacco’s net.
The F.D.A. can ban flavors immediately, but it has repeatedly kicked the can down the road when it comes to taking serious steps. So on Tuesday, our organizations, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, are starting a national campaign — including an investment of $160 million to empower parents and kids and to push our leaders to act.
We come to this fight armed with data, evidence and experience — including wisdom learned passing policies during the Bloomberg administration in New York City and our nearly $1 billion global investment over the past decade to combat death and disease caused by tobacco products.
As part of our new campaign, we will help at least 20 cities and states pass laws banning all flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes. We will evaluate the impact of these rules on youth use and share lessons with other cities and states.
History shows that progress is possible. It wasn’t long ago that restaurants and offices were so full of toxic cigarette smoke that it was hard to see across the room. In the past decade, dozens of countries have passed policies that protect people from tobacco. Tobacco-product sales peaked in 2012; global sales of cigarettes then began declining for the first time since the dawn of the tobacco industry. In the United States, teenage smoking has fallen by nearly 70 percent since 2000.
The United States has helped lead the way in cutting tobacco use. We can do the same for e-cigarettes. But we must address this epidemic with the urgency and commitment it requires.
The tobacco industry knows how to run out the clock, how to deceive, how to entice young people, and how to sugarcoat its products, marketing and methods.
We’re not buying it, and we shouldn’t let America’s children get fooled into buying it either.
This op-ed originally published in The New York Times on September 10, 2019