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E-cigs becoming on-ramp for addiction

The number of high school-age children reporting use of e-cigarettes rose by more than 75 percent from 2017 to 2018.

An unidentified 15-year-old high school student uses a

An unidentified 15-year-old high school student uses a vaping device near the school's campus in Cambridge, Mass., in April. Photo Credit: AP / Steven Senne

At the Department of Health and Human Services, we are concerned about the risks e-cigarettes pose for children, given how quickly teenage use of these products has accelerated. Using a small battery to heat a liquid that contains nicotine, e-cigarettes turn the liquid into an inhalable vapor. Since 2014, they have been the most popular nicotine product among American teenagers.

And e-cigarettes’ popularity is accelerating: From 2017 to 2018, according to data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey, the number of high school-age children reporting use of e-cigarettes rose by more than 75 percent. Use among middle-schoolers also increased nearly 50 percent. That is an epidemic.

The surge in e-cigarette use by teenagers is alarming because nicotine is highly addictive and can harm brain development, which continues into young adulthood. Worse, kids who start on e-cigarettes are actually more likely than non-user peers to migrate to smoking tobacco, as shown by data in a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

It is crucial that e-cigarettes do not become an on-ramp for children to become addicted to nicotine. But at the same time, we believe e-cigarettes can be an important off-ramp for adults who are addicted to combustible cigarettes. At HHS, we are intent on combating tobacco use, the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. And last year we placed nicotine at the center of a comprehensive plan for tobacco regulation.

The efforts at HHS to combat tobacco’s lethality focus on two key goals: first, reducing the nicotine levels in combustible cigarettes to render them minimally or nonaddictive. Second, harnessing new forms of nicotine delivery, including medicinal products and e-cigarettes, to give adult smokers less harmful substitutes for cigarettes.

Yet products such as e-cigarettes need to be put through an appropriate regulatory process. Under the most likely path for marketing authorization, they must show that their marketing is appropriate for protecting the public health, taking into account their risks and benefits to the population as a whole.

Rising e-cigarette use by children makes the marketing of this product especially deserving of close attention.

To better understand how this marketing works, the Food and Drug Administration has taken a series of actions, including obtaining records from Juul Labs headquarters in San Francisco during an unannounced inspection. Juul devices function as nicotine-delivering e-cigarettes, but are shaped like a USB flash drive. Juul now has more than a 70 percent share of the cartridge-based e-cigarette market in the United States. The use of Juul in schools, including classrooms and restrooms, has been widely reported by students and teachers.

All these concerns drove us to crack down on sales of e-cigarette products to minors. For several months, we have advanced a comprehensive Youth Tobacco Prevention Plan to thwart the marketing and sales of e-cigarettes to minors, including an extensive education campaign warning teens about the risks of these products.

E-cigarette manufacturers are on notice. They still have the opportunity to come forward with plans to stem e-cigarette use by children. The technology that might help adults end one addiction cannot pull a generation of kids into a new one.

Alex M. Azar is the secretary of Health and Human Services. Scott Gottlieb is the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

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