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Blair Horner: A Rising Addiction Threat That Targets Kids

We all know the terrible statistics about smoking.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans die each year due to tobacco use.  It is the leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women.  Tobacco use is also addicting.  It’s an unusual product, that when used as directed, addicts and kills.The problem for the tobacco industry is getting people hooked.  Starting to smoke or chew tobacco is not fun; it tastes awful, it hurts your throat and makes you cough.  The industry knows this and glamorized tobacco use through such images as the Marlboro Man to lure people into the habit.

We know that the vast majority of tobacco users start before the age of 18.  Nearly 90 percent of all tobacco users start before the age of 18 with the average age of initiation being 14.

How does the industry get children to not only try tobacco products, but to actually be able to tolerate those initial experiences?  They do it by offering tobacco products with candy and other sweet flavors.  The evidence of the tobacco industry’s strategies was so compelling that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of candy-flavored cigarettes, although continues to allow it for small cigars, known as cigarillos, and pipe tobacco.

Yet, smart public health strategies like raising the price of tobacco products through higher levels of taxation, restricting the use of tobacco products in public and work places, as well as funding aggressive public health marketing, particularly to kids, has drastically reduced the rate of tobacco use in the United States.  The rate of tobacco use among teens has dropped dramatically as well.

And without teens taking up this deadly addiction, the tobacco industry has seen the writing on the wall.  Without youthful “replacement smokers,” the tobacco industry will eventually die off.

So they have embraced a new product, while employing the same tactics.

The new products are electronic cigarettes, or “e-cigarettes.”  E-cigs are a new technology in which the user does not inhale smoke, but the vapor from an electronic device.  E-cigarettes are sleek, high tech and easy to hide. They look like USB flash drives and can be charged in the USB port of a computer.  They don’t look anything like a traditional tobacco product.  And they’re small enough to fit in a closed hand.

E-cigarettes deliver nicotine in the same way as cigarettes do, but without all of the smoke.  They also pack quite a punch; e-cigarettes deliver a much higher dose of nicotine than traditional burned cigarettes.

The tobacco industry has seen the potential; they have invested billions of dollars in the e-cigarette industry.

E-cigarette companies are using a tactic used for decades by the tobacco industry: heavy advertising and offering “starter” products with sweet tastes.  

As a result, e-cigarettes have flooded the market in recent years, contributing to skyrocketing rates of youth tobacco product use.  Vaping among high school students increased nationally nearly 80 percent from 2017 to 2018, with 1 in 5 high schoolers using these products. 

How did a generation become hooked on e-cigarettes so quickly? A major factor has been flavored products. With flavors like mango, vanilla, and mint, e-cigarette makers have created a line of products with massive appeal to teens.  A Surgeon General’s report cited a study that found 81.5 percent of current youth e-cigarette users said they use the products because “they come in flavors that I like.” 

Because these candy-like flavors mask the nasty taste, kids often don’t realize that they’re using nicotine, or understand how dangerous it is. The Surgeon General’s office recently found that over 60 percent of high schoolers believe occasional use of e-cigarettes causes little harm – a claim that the medical community has refuted time and again – and another survey found that more than 60 percent of young adult users didn’t know the product always contains nicotine.  In fact, one e-cig pod can contain as much nicotine as an entire pack of twenty cigarettes. 

For years, tobacco use among young people saw a steady decline.  However, that progress is now at risk due to the rapid rise of e-cigarettes.  As the U.S. Surgeon General has commented, “The recent surge in e-cigarette use among youth, which has been fueled by new types of e-cigarettes that have recently entered the market, is a cause for great concern. We must take action now to protect the health of our nation’s young people.”

New York lawmakers can show the nation how to take action by starting to ban the use of candy-flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes products.  We must do what we can to prevent children from getting hooked on this lethal nicotine addiction.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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