Sitting in a lecture hall at the University of Colorado at Boulder, diligently typing notes about sociological theories, I suddenly got distracted by a cloud billowing up in front of me. My initial thought was pure panic — FIRE! — until the smoke wafted in my direction and I breathed in the unmistakable scent of…tropical fruit?
My first experience with a peer vaping an electronic cigarette in a classroom was hardly my last. The accessibility and the quick dispersion of vapor from small e-cigarettes such as Juuls, the dominant brand on the market, make it easier to vape in places that were previously tobacco-free. My university campus is technically a smoke-free zone, but the rule is seldom enforced in regard to e-cigarettes. I often walk past traditional (or “combustible”) cigarette smokers hiding among trees on the quad, getting their fix between classes, while e-cigarette users openly flaunt their vaping.
This issue reaches further than my university; it’s an epidemic. E-cigarette use among youth has skyrocketed in the United States since vapes were introduced circa 2007. A recent survey found that e-cigarette use among high schoolers escalated by 78 percent between 2017-2018, and one in five students polled used e-cigarettes. The rise in vaping disrupted the previous national decline in youth tobacco product use.
Misconceptions that e-cigs aren’t bad for you may be a key contributing factor. When I was a teenager, I had friends that used e-cigarettes not knowing that the products often contain nicotine, a drug that can do so much cognitive and emotional damage to people my age. The truth is that a single Juul pod contains as much nicotine as an entire pack of 20 cigarettes. And research indicates that people using e-cigarettes are more than three times as likely as non-users to start smoking combustible cigarettes.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to review all tobacco products based on ingredients, design, health risks and potential appeal to current non-smokers. However, e-cigarettes are on the market now without having undergone the appropriate review. That will change — but not soon enough. In response to health and safety concerns regarding e-cig use among minors, the FDA has proposed expediting its review date to Aug. 8, 2021.
Until the FDA undertakes the required public health assessment, all e-cigarette products that haven’t been reviewed should be pulled from the market. This is particularly critical in Colorado. Despite our state’s health-conscious reputation, e-cigarettes are increasingly prevalent statewide. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that Colorado’s high school and middle school students use vaping products at twice the national average, with the highest rate of 37 states surveyed.
We need urgent action at the state Capitol and, in this most recent legislative session, there was one bill, House Bill 1076, that did make a difference. It added e-cigarettes into the Clean Indoor Air Act and removed the loophole that allowed vaping in places where traditional smoking is banned, like restaurants and businesses.
Still, there are numerous other ways to approach this issue in Colorado. For example, Gov. Jared Polis led an effort to ensure current taxes on cigarettes are extended to all nicotine devices, such as vaping products. That bill failed, though there is talk that the measure could appear on a future ballot.
Other policies that could address this issue, include:
- Banning all flavored e-cigarette products because research shows flavors hook kids. The FDA has proposed rules to restrict the sales of fruit and candy-flavored nicotine pods. It’s a move in the right direction, but it still leaves other appealing flavors, like mint, easily available.
- Ensuring that e-cigarettes are subject to the same marketing restrictions as combustible cigarettes.
While there is much the state can and should do, the FDA needs to take more definitive action. Ultimately, it has the authority to protect millions of my peers from the health risks of nicotine. Policy-makers must act now or risk condemning my generation to the vicious cycle of life-threatening addiction.
Jillian Rhinehart is graduating this month from the University of Colorado. She is part of the communications team at CoPIRG, (Colorado Public Interest Research Group), a statewide nonprofit that focuses on public health and consumer protection issues.