Washington– Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday condemned tobacco companies for “aggressively” targeting children with flavored vaping products.
“We can’t allow young Americans to be ensnared in nicotine addiction,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), chairwoman of a key health subcommittee, said during a hearing on legislation aimed at ending youth tobacco use. “It’s time to do everything we can to end youth tobacco use.”
Eshoo’s remarks came in an opening statement during a hearing her panel, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, held on a bill dubbed “Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019.” Witnesses from several major anti-tobacco advocacy groups and medical professionals appeared before the subcommittee and argued that e-cigarette companies such as Juul deliberately marketed their products to minors.
Aside from the variety flavors that appeal to children, such as bubblegum and mango, witnesses also testified that these vaporizers are easy to hide, often similar in appearance to flash-drives or office supplies.
“These predatory companies targeted our kids where they live, on social media, with slick ads, promotions, and influencers,” Dorian Fuhrman, co-founder of Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes, said.
Fuhrman alleged that a representative from Juul approached her 14-year-old son at his high school after a presentation on tobacco use and showed him how to use the device, calling it the “iPhone of vapes.” Her son developed a “severe” nicotine addiction, she said, that required professional treatment to overcome.
Fuhrman submitted a series of different flavored pods from various vaping companies to the committee, before revealing that the highlighter in her hand was actually a vaporizer specifically designed to be innocuous.
Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor in the Boston University School of Public Health, said that flavor is not responsible for the addictiveness of vaping products, and that lawmakers should be more concerned about the regulation of highly concentrated nicotine salts. Siegel said that e-cigarette companies are able to pack much more nicotine into a smaller volume of liquid, allowing nicotine to enter the blood stream and give users a “buzz” almost instantly.
During her questioning, Chairwoman Eshoo said that while the flavor may not be addictive, but it is what convinces adolescents to try vaping in the first place.
“I love Italian food, so I go to Italian restaurants,” said Chairwoman Eshoo. “Flavor is very attractive.”
Although there was bi-partisan agreement that action must be taken to stop youth tobacco use, lawmakers butted heads on language within the legislation that would ban all flavored tobacco products, which would include menthol cigarettes as well as flavored nicotine salts.
“My fear … is that such a ban will inevitably lead to the creation of a black market for mentholated products,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat of North Carolina, the nation’s top tobacco producer. “It is naïve to think that a prohibition of flavors for existing tobacco products, like menthol, will not have unintended consequences.”
Butterfield cited research stating that a third of all tobacco use in the U.S. is menthol cigarettes, and that 80% of African Americans who smoke prefer menthol. He said that if menthol was implemented it could specifically harm African Americans by pushing the product into illegal distribution.
“This bill does not address tobacco use in two thirds of the U.S. market, instead it targets one third of the market that just happens to be African American,” said Butterfield.
Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Ok.) said the conversation was “very hypocritical” because it was not addressing THC-laced pods, and witnesses chose not to comment on their positions regarding the legalization of marijuana.
“If we’re going to talk about this, let’s have an open
and fair conversation about it,” said
Rep. Mullin. “What brought this
into a hearing to begin with was because the death and sickness that e-cigarettes
has brought, but what hasn’t been discussed is that most of those individuals
was buying illegal cartridges laced with THC.”
Rep. Mullin raised concerns that even if the flavored pods were made illegal, teens could still purchase them online.
While both parties support the idea of addressing the increase in youth tobacco use, they remain at odds over whether to legislate a broader ban on flavored tobacco products. The “Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019” is one of several bills making its way through the committee process.
The Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019 was introduced to Congress on April 18. It is still in its preliminary stages and is still awaiting amendments.