Democrats and Republicans have found something they can agree on – raising the minimum age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 21 to combat e-cigarette smoking by teenagers. This legislation is long overdue. It is part of the efforts to rein in “vaping,” as it’s called, “an exploding epidemic” among teens, according to an FDA commissioner.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia are co-sponsoring the Tobacco-Free Youth Act, which makes 21 the minimum age for buying tobacco products. Ironically, their states share a long history of growing tobacco with its addictive nicotine.
“I recognize I might seem like an unusual candidate to lead this charge,” said McConnell who is running for a seventh term. “I’ve consistently stood up for all Kentucky farmers, including our tobacco farmers.” But he said, “now is the right time to do this.” Kaine called vaping by teens “one of the most significant public health issues facing our nation today.”
That’s borne out by the statistics both nationwide and here in Georgia.
A report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that from 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette use by youths increased sharply in the United States with 1.5 million more middle and high school students vaping. That “erased past progress in reducing youth tobacco product use,” the CDC said. In 2018, the percentage of high school students using e-cigarettes jumped from 11.7 percent to 20.8 percent. Use among middle schoolers rose from 3.3 percent to 4.9 percent. Overall, there were about 4.9 million users of some type of tobacco product among middle and high school students in 2018, up from 3.6 million in 2017.
“Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, and nearly all tobacco use begins in adolescence,” the CDC reports. Of critical concern to young users is the conclusion by the U.S. surgeon general that “nicotine exposure during adolescence can harm the developing brain.” This exposure “impacts learning, memory and attention” while it “primes the brain for addiction.”
The alarming trends are seen in Georgia.
“Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in Georgia each year,” reports the state Department of Public Health. The shocking toll from tobacco is more than 11,500 deaths each year and “nearly $5 billion dollars in direct health care and indirect costs, such as lost wages.” In the past 15 years, adult use of tobacco has been declining but at the same time alternative tobacco use rates have risen and “young adults ages 18-24 continue to smoke at the highest rates of any age group.” One in four Georgia high school students said they had used e-cigarettes in 2017.
Soaring in popularity among youth are e-cigarettes produced by Juul Labs, Inc. These high-tech products resemble USB flash drives and can be charged in a computer port, not at all like a traditional cigarette. They are very small, easily fitting in a person’s hand. Juuls are available in a variety of flavors including mint, fruit, crème, mango, menthol and cucumber, and research shows flavors are a key factor in youth use of tobacco products, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Since this e-cigarette was introduced in 2015, its sales have grown to more than 70 percent of the e-cigarette market in this country. Yet many of its young users are unaware that the product contains nicotine and are hooked on “juuling,” the research shows, “indicating they may not realize it is an e-cigarette or tobacco product.”
The FDA is being pushed by a federal judge to move faster on issuing tighter regulations on e-cigarettes as public health groups have been urging. And this month, North Carolina became the first state to file a lawsuit against Juul for alleged deceptive marketing targeting teens. “As a result of Juul’s deceptive and unfair practices, thousands of North Carolina kids are at risk of addiction to nicotine,” Attorney General Josh Stein said, citing the fact that nearly 17 percent of high school students in that state reported vaping. Juul claims its products are not for kids but aimed at converting adult former smokers.
A lot of efforts are being focused on curbing the alarming spread of vaping among teenagers and even younger children. If the past is any guide, when it comes to changing the behavior of young people, this will be a very tough fight. But clearly it’s worth all the efforts and the overdue bipartisan higher age limit legislation is on target.