Kentucky high school student Abby Hefner speaks to the press after the House of Representatives passed the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act on Feb. 28, 2020.
by Tim Walker
Lauren Williams, a teacher in Paducah, Kentucky, said the epidemic of teen vaping at her school “just seemed to come out of nowhere.”
Last year, Williams and her colleagues at McCracken High School conducted an informal survey of the student body and found that at least 50% of their students had used vaping devices. “I thought it might even be higher, it just seems out of control… These companies have addicted an entire generation and it’s happened quickly and under the radar,” Williams said.
One of those students was sophomore Abby Hefner, who tried her first flavored e-cigarette at a school football game in 2018. “I was instantly hooked,” she recalls. “That night I bought my first ever Juul.” Even after repeated attempts to quit, the need for nicotine and the assorted kid-friendly flavors kept pulling her back in.
Hefner quit vaping but staying off remains a struggle. Along with fellow students at McCracken, she serves on a youth ambassador team that visits other schools across the district to talk about the dangers of tobacco and advocates for anti-vaping regulations.
Williams is the group’s adviser. On February 28, she accompanied Hefner to Washington, D.C. to take part in a Capitol Hill event marking the passage of the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act, which places new restrictions on the marketing of e-cigarettes to young people.
Despite industry claims that e-cigarettes help adult smokers move to a tar-free product, health experts and educators know that these devices are in fact creating a new generation of nicotine addicts. In fact, 15- to-17-year-olds are more than 16 times more likely to be Juul users than 25- to 34-year-olds.
According to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey, an estimated 5.3 million teens use e-cigarettes. Vaping among high school students went from 11.7% in 2017 to 27.5% two years later. Juul is the preferred brand of e-cigarette, with a 75% market share.
Recognizing teen vaping had reached a crisis point, school districts in Kansas, Missouri, and New York in October 2019 filed separate lawsuits against Juul Labs, alleging that the e-cigarette company was intentionally marketing its vaping products – many of them flavored – to teens as “trendsetting and relatively harmless.”
By March, the number of districts taking legal action against Juul and other e-cigarette manufacturers had multiplied to more than 100. Each suit seeks to recover the costs of prevention programs, counseling, and treatment programs for addicted students.
The nation’s schools, an attorney representing Los Angeles and surrounding districts told Education Week, “essentially became ground zero for Juul marketing and the epidemic it has created.”
State officials are also stepping up the pressure on vaping products. In February, attorneys general from Connecticut, Florida, Nevada, Oregon, and Texas announced they would be conducting a joint investigation into Juul’s marketing and sales, including whether it targeted youths and misled about the level of nicotine content in its devices.
Unfortunately, this urgency to confront the teen vaping epidemic isn’t being felt at the national level – or at least not strongly enough for the White House and allies in Congress.
For a while last year, it looked like the Trump Administration was on the verge of issuing tough new regulations on the vaping industry. In September 2019, the president announced at a press conference he would issue a ban on all flavored vaping products. “We’re going to have some strong rules and regulations,” Trump promised.
Two months later, he reversed course. According to The Washington Post, the decision was driven by concerns over potential job losses, but also because “apoplectic vape shop owners and their customers might hurt his reelection prospects.”
Instead, the administration opted for a mishmash of weak regulations that still allowed menthol-flavored e-cigarettes and flavored liquids to remain widely available.
To Matthew Myers of the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids, Trump’s decision was an obvious and troubling capitulation to Juul labs and vaping shops that “gave a green light to the cigarette industry to continue to target and addict kids with flavored products.”
It didn’t stop there. Last month, the White House announced a plan to strip the Food and Drug Administration of its legal authority to regulate tobacco products. The administration proposed creating a new stand-alone agency within the Department of Health and Human Services to oversee tobacco regulation, to be led by a Senate-confirmed director appointed by the president. Experts immediately denounced the proposal as a bald-faced attempt to disrupt and undermine the federal government’s role in protecting young people from e-cigarettes.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, leadership fell on the House of Representatives, who passed the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act in February.
The bill, supported by the National Education Association and more than 170 other education, public health, civil rights, and parents organizations, would place new restrictions on the marketing of e-cigarettes (specifically making it illegal to market, advertise, or promote any e-cigarette products to anyone younger than 21) and ban flavors in tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes. It also would place a new excise tax on nicotine.
The bill, Abby Hefner said at the Capitol Hill press conference, was “long overdue.”
A version of the bill will soon be introduced in the U.S. Senate, where prospects for passage are slim at best. Even if proponents were to succeed in cobbling together a small majority, President Trump has made it clear he opposes the legislation, sending another clear signal to Juul labs that he has their back. As he said in January, “we have to protect families. At the same time, it’s a big industry. We want to protect the industry.”
“There should be no question,” said Myers of the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids. “The Trump administration has sided with Juul, Altria, the vape shops and other e-cigarette interests over our kids.”
Email your senators and tell them to support S. 3174 to help reverse the growing use of tobacco products among American youth