Who’s Responsible for Curbing the Teen Vaping Epidemic?

A teenage girl vaping in a park.

(© DubstepWar/Fotolia)


E-cigarettes are big business. In 2017, American consumers bought more than $250 million in vapes and juice-filled pods, and spent $1 billion in 2018. By 2023, the global market could be worth $44 billion a year.

"My nine-year-old actually knows what Juuling is. In many cases the [school] bathroom is now referred to as 'the Juuling room.'"

Investors are trying to capitalize on the phenomenal growth. In July 2018, Juul Labs, the company that owns 70 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market share, raised $1.25 billion at a $16 billion valuation, then sold a 35 percent stake to Phillip Morris USA owner Altria Group in December. The second transaction valued the company at $38 billion. While the traditional tobacco market remains much larger, it's projected to grow at less than two percent a year, making the attractiveness of the rapidly expanding e-cigarette market obvious.

While Juul and other e-cigarette manufacturers argue that their products help adults quit smoking – and there's some research to back this narrative up – much of the growth has been driven by children and teenagers. One CDC study showed a 48 percent rise in e-cigarette use by middle schoolers and a 78 percent increase by high schoolers between 2017 and 2018, a jump from 1.5 million kids to 3.6 million. In response to the study, F.D.A. Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said, "We see clear signs that youth use of electronic cigarettes has reached an epidemic proportion."

Another study found that teenagers between 15 and 17 were 16 times more likely to use Juul than people aged 25-34. In December, Surgeon General Jerome Adams said, "My nine-year-old actually knows what Juuling is. In many cases the [school] bathroom is now referred to as 'the Juuling room.'"

And the product is seriously addictive. A single Juul pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes. Considering that 90 percent of smokers are addicted by 18 years old, it's clear that steps need to be taken to combat the growing epidemic.

But who should take the lead? Juul and other e-cigarette companies? The F.D.A. and other government regulators? Schools? Parents?

The Surgeon General's website has a list of earnest possible texts that parents can send to their teens to dissuade them from Juuling, like: "Hope none of your friends use e-cigarettes around you. Even breathing the cloud they exhale can expose you to nicotine and chemicals that can be dangerous to your health." While parents can attempt to police their teens, many experts believe that the primary push should come at a federal level.

The regulation battle has already begun. In September, the F.D.A. announced that Juul had 60 days to show a plan that would prevent youth from getting their hands on the product. The result was for the company to announce that it wouldn't sell flavored pods in retail stores except for tobacco, menthol, and mint; Juul also shuttered its Instagram and Facebook accounts. These regulations mirrored an F.D.A. mandate two days later that required flavored e-cigarettes to be sold in closed-off areas. "This policy will make sure the fruity flavors are no longer accessible to kids in retail sites, plan and simple," Commissioner Gottlieb said when announcing the moves. "That's where they're getting access to the e-cigs and we intend to end those sales."

"There isn't a great history of the tobacco industry acting responsibly and being able to in any way police itself."

While so far, Gottlieb – who drew concerns about conflict of interest due to his past position as a board member at e-cigarette company, Kure – has pleased anti-smoking advocates with his efforts, some observers also argue that it needs to go further. "Overall, we didn't know what to expect when a new commissioner came in, but it's been quite refreshing how much attention has been paid to the tobacco industry by the F.D.A.," Robin Koval, CEO and president of Truth Initiative, said a day after the F.D.A. announced the proposed regulations. "It's important to have a start. I certainly want to give credit for that. But we were really hoping and feel that what was announced...doesn't go far enough."

The issue is the industry's inability or unwillingness to police itself in the past. Juul, however, claims that it's now proactively working to prevent young people from taking up its product. "Juul Labs and F.D.A. share a common goal – preventing youth from initiating on nicotine," a company representative said in an email. "To paraphrase Commissioner Gottlieb, we want to be the off-ramp for adult smokers to switch from cigarettes, not an on-ramp for America's youth to initiate on nicotine. We won't be successful in our mission to serve adult smokers if we don't narrow the on-ramp... Our intent was never to have youth use Juul products. But intent is not enough, the numbers are what matter, and the numbers tell us underage use of e-cigarette products is a problem. We must solve it."

Juul argues that its products help adults quit – even offering a calculator on the website showing how much people will save – and that it didn't target youth. But studies show otherwise. Furthermore, the youth smoking prevention curriculum the company released was poorly received. "It's what Philip Morris did years ago," said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford who helped author a study on the program's faults. "They aren't talking about their named product. They are talking about vapes or e-cigarettes. Youth don't consider Juuls to be vapes or e-cigarettes. [Teens] don't talk about flavors. They don't talk about marketing. They did it to look good. But if you look at what [Juul] put together, it's a pretty awful curriculum that was put together pretty quickly."

The American Lung Association gave the FDA an "F" for failing to take mint and menthol e-cigs off the market, since those flavors remain popular with teens.

Add this all up, and in the end, it's hard to see the industry being able to police itself, critics say. Neither the past examples of other tobacco companies nor the present self-imposed regulations indicate that this will succeed.

"There isn't a great history of the tobacco industry acting responsibly and being able to in any way police itself," Koval said. "That job is best left to the F.D.A., and to the states and localities in what they can regulate and legislate to protect young people."

Halpern-Felsher agreed. "I think we need independent bodies. I really don't think that a voluntary ban or a regulation on the part of the industry is a good idea, nor do I think it will work," she said. "It's pretty much the same story, of repeating itself."

Just last week, the American Association of Pediatrics issued a new policy statement calling for the F.D.A. to immediately ban the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under age 21 and to prohibit the online sale of vaping products and solutions, among other measures. And in its annual report, the American Lung Association gave the F.D.A. an "F" for failing to take mint and menthol e-cigs off the market, since those flavors remain popular with teens.

Few, if any people involved, want more regulation from the federal government. In an ideal world, this wouldn't be necessary. But many experts agree that it is. Anything else is just blowing smoke.

Noah Davis
Noah Davis is a writer living in Brooklyn. Visit his website at http://www.noahedavis.com.
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Kidney transplant patient Robert Waddell, center, with his wife and children after being off immunosuppresants; photo aken last summer in Perdido Key, FL. Left to right: Christian, Bailey, Rob, Karen (wife), Robby and Casey.

Photo courtesy Rob Waddell

Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.

But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.

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This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

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Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.