BY DAN DASKAL
In a centuries-old game of cat and mouse, for as long as officials have sought to limit and control drug use, teenagers have discovered methods for obtaining these substances. In accordance with this pattern, on April 24, the FDA cracked down on the sale of vaping products to minors. In particular, the FDA has targeted Juul Labs, a popular manufacturer of e-cigarettes that closely resemble USB drives.
E-cigarettes have been lauded as safer alternatives to smoking, with companies such as Juul Labs promoting their products as beneficial to public health through their effectiveness in helping fewer people use cigarettes. Nevertheless, the health risks of vaping remain unclear, as aerosols from e-cigarettes contain cancer-causing chemicals as well as heavy metals, including nickel, tin, and lead. Studies regarding the effectiveness of e-cigarettes for smoking cessation have yielded conflicting results, and the FDA currently prevents e-cigarettes from being marketed as smoking cessation devices. Though e-cigarettes are less effective than cigarettes at delivering nicotine, newer models have begun to bridge the gap. Professional reviewers have said that “the Juul is actually comparable to actual cigarettes in terms of taste and sensation,” and Juul Labs has stated that the Juul provides a level of nicotine similar to a traditional cigarette.
As explained by Michael Siegel, who specializes in tobacco research at Boston University, “This is the definition of a double-edged sword.” Though Juuls may be more effective in helping adult smokers quit, for teenagers, “it’s a bad thing because it really does create the addiction potential that you don’t have with normal electronic cigarettes.” This increased risk, along with increasing prevalence of Juuls in schools across the country, helps to explain the recent FDA crackdown.
Schools throughout the nation have been struggling to counteract the Juul epidemic as an increasing number of e-cigarettes continue to be confiscated from students on campus. Many e-cigarette advertisements appear to target teenagers, with advertising targeting social status, appearance, and celebrity, likely contributing to the devices’ overall popularity. In addition, the small size of Juuls and other e-cigarettes, such as myblu and KandyPens, along with their resemblance to USB drives, makes these products relatively easy for students to hide from their parents and teachers. Many students are even vaping during class. Various groups have also expressed concerns regarding flavorings, such as mango, crème brûlée, and fruit medley, which appear likely to entice teens.
Rather than achieving their intended purpose of weaning smokers off cigarettes, e-cigarettes have contributed to a resurgent addiction to nicotine in today’s youth. Cigarette smoking in teens has declined sharply from more than 24 percent of high school seniors in 1997 to under 4 percent in 2017; however, over 25 percent of high school seniors said that they had vaped in the past year. This trend is particularly alarming to public health officials, as teens who vape higher doses of nicotine are more likely to become regular smokers. Exposure to nicotine in young adults can also result in lasting harm to their developing brains, potentially damaging the parts of the brain that control attention and learning, as well as increasing their risk for mood disorders and a permanent reduction of impulse control.
On April 24th, as part of an attempt to curtail e-cigarette consumption by minors, the FDA engaged in a wide-ranging crack down on Juul e-cigarettes. Although Juul Labs, in an effort to decrease purchases intended for minors, raised the minimum age required to purchase one of their devices online from 18 to 21, teen use of Juul e-cigarettes has continued to surge. As part of the FDA’s crackdown, 40 retailers were cited for youth sales of Juul e-cigarettes, and various listings of Juuls were removed from eBay. The FDA also demanded information from Juul Labs regarding the reasons for the ubiquity of its products among adolescents, and announced plans to pursue “additional enforcement actions focused on companies that we think are marketing products in ways that are misleading to kids.”
Various advocates commended the FDA for its crackdown; however, some, like Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids President Matthew Myers did not believe that its actions went far enough. According to Myers, “The FDA can and should take immediate action to address these issues and, moving forward, the FDA should utilize this authority to prevent the introduction of kid-friendly tobacco products in the first place, rather than taking action after they become popular with kids.
Comprehensive regulations on advertisements and flavorings are crucial, as these will decrease the attractiveness of e-cigarettes to teenagers. By reducing teenagers’ desire to use e-cigarettes, the FDA will eliminate much of their motivation for obtaining them, thereby facilitating its efforts to eliminate illegal sales and improve the public’s health in the process.