On September 12, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb gave e-cigarette companies an ultimatum: either figure out how to combat underage use of e-cigarettes, or risk having their products banned on the US market. Calling the rising use of e-cigarettes an “epidemic,” the FDA is beginning to question the health of the products and the results of their simple-to-use, easy-to-conceal, and appealing-to-underage-users nature.
This comes as a blow to e-cigarette companies: they are aware that their products are addictive and a danger to most of their consumer base. According to a “New York Times” article called “Did Juul Lure Teenagers and Get ‘Customers for Life’?” a former senior manager said that he was “well aware” that the product would appeal to teenagers. E-cigarette marketers have won over regulators by claiming that their products help people quit smoking cigarettes by replacing the harmful smoke from tobacco with a harmless vapor and nicotine hit. The narrative of a middle-age man trying to quit his cigarette addiction is admirable, even noble. But it is hardly the only context in which people use e-cigarettes: a report from Tobacco Free Kids finds that 11.7% of high school students were current e-cigarette users in 2017.
Juul, one of the most popular e-cigarette manufacturers, has said in multiple statements that it will comply with any US regulation and is working on its marketing practices. Its cheery Instagram page featuring attractive young women and their mango, fruit medley, and cucumber mint e-cigarette flavor pods tell a more sinister side of the story – that Juul’s $16 billion company has reached that valuation in part thanks to impressionable teenagers, individuals who, had the product not existed, may not have picked up a nicotine habit. One of the ads in question shows a young man in a backwards hat with a Juul in his mouth, arms wrapped around two women of similar age, all of them holding plastic cups. Ads with these associations are clearly not for smokers who seek remedy from cigarette addiction.
Additionally, prohibitions of e-cigarettes on high school and college campuses is difficult to enforce. The vapor is nearly odorless, and the vapor clouds do not stick around for long, which makes it hard for schools to catch students who do not comply with campus smoking bans. The product is also easy to conceal, as most e-cigarettes are similar to a USB-stick in size and shape. Because they do not emit smoke, a smoke detector cannot prevent students from using them during class or in bathrooms. And fervent believers in the product claim that they pose no long-term health detriments, unlike smoking, which has been proven to have long-term detriments to health.
At Ursinus, e-cigarettes are everywhere. I see them used in Reimert frequently, both in suites and in the courtyard. While I respect an individual’s choice to use a legal tobacco product if they are of age, that freedom comes at the expense of other party-goers looking for a good time without being exposed to e-cigarette vapor. Some individuals might find the ubiquitous nature of e-cigarettes repugnant, which forces us to consider if there should be a policy against the use of e-cigarettes in certain circumstances.
Is it time to call for stricter regulation against e-cigarette use on a national level? From the same report, 2.1 million youth were reported to be current e-cigarette users in the past year, and the growing popularity of the devices can be dangerous if the health concerns are not properly identified and addressed. The ease of use, attractiveness to younger people, and general availability of the product make regulation difficult, but not impossible. The 1960s through 1970s saw significant legislation surrounding the cigarette industry, such as the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, which may have contributed to plummeting use of cigarettes among teens.
There is no reason why e-cigarette companies cannot be scrutinized for their marketing practices the same way that cigarette companies have been. In my opinion, a regulatory body needs to step forward and address the epidemic of mango-huffing, doped-up and vulnerable teenagers looking for an easy fix.