An alarming 27.5% of high school students are using e-cigarettes today — a 135% increase over the past two years. Nicotine is a dangerously addictive substance that harms adolescent brain development. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the brain develops until age 25, and nicotine exposure harms the part of the brain that controls attention, learning, mood and impulse control. It also increases the likelihood of future addiction to other drugs.
At the same time, more than 1,600 people have suffered from a vaping-related lung injury, and several dozen have died.
As chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, I’ve led the congressional investigation into the youth vaping epidemic in order to understand how we got here. Why are nearly 1 in 3 high schoolers vaping, what are the health consequences of e-cigarettes, and how do we hold bad actors accountable and prevent youth vaping from continuing to skyrocket?
After reviewing tens of thousands of documents, we found three glaring reasons for the rise in youth vaping: youth-oriented advertising and marketing campaigns that hook kids through social media and other platforms, e-cigarette flavors like mint, gummy bear and fruit medley, which have created a new generation of smokers, and the sale of e-cigarettes with extremely addictive levels of nicotine that make vaping almost impossible to quit.
First, with regard to advertising, e-cigarette companies are reaching today’s kids where parents can’t see them — through social media influencers and trendy designer cocktail launch parties targeting image-obsessed youth. Now, we are seeing a wave of TV and radio ads for e-cigarettes. It’s jarring to the generations of Americans who have never seen cigarettes advertised on TV or radio (that has been illegal since 1971). For example, Fontem Ventures’ decision to spend millions of dollars to advertise its Blu vape brand to youth on Comedy Central seems particularly out of touch.
After seeing the direct link between e-cigarette advertising campaigns and the increase in youth vaping, I called on the FDA to investigate Juul’s marketing practices, which they declared illegal last month. In response, Juul, the largest e-cigarette manufacturer, announced on Sept. 25 that it would halt all advertising and marketing in the United States. I also called on the other top e-cigarette companies to stop advertising and am encouraged that Logic and NJOY confirmed they will not advertise in the U.S.
Second, we know that more than 81% of people 12 to 17 who start smoking a tobacco product start with a flavor. On Sept. 11, that message finally reached the White House, with the Trump administration announcing that the FDA would ban flavored e-cigarettes, including mint and menthol flavors.
While we were told that the flavor ban would be announced in short order, we have still not seen it. We need to keep the pressure on the FDA to implement this ban before one more child gets hooked into a lifelong nicotine addiction by youth-oriented flavors.
Third, while we now know that flavors hook kids, it is clearly the nicotine that reels them in. The current generation of popular e-cigarettes includes massive amounts of nicotine, at 59 milligrams per milliliter of e-liquid. This is three to six times as addictive as e-cigarettes prior to Juul. That is why I introduced legislation to cap the amount of nicotine in e-cigarettes. This approach worked in the U.K. — its nicotine cap has kept youth use at under 5%, an aspirational goal considering our staggering 27.5% rate.
While e-cigarette makers and their investors — including Big Tobacco giant Altria — may be content with hooking an entirely new generation of children on nicotine, our country can’t afford to be. This is why I’ve worked with advocates and experts across the country and here in Illinois to shine a spotlight on the role of e-cigarettes in the youth vaping epidemic, and I’ll continue to hold the FDA’s feet to the fire when it comes to properly regulating this industry.
Today, 5 million children are vaping. That number will increase if we don’t implement bold and comprehensive solutions to protect American public health. The risk of letting history repeat itself is far too great.
Raja Krishnamoorthi represents Illinois’ 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.