By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
It is bad enough that so many Americans, including 3.5 million kids, have acquired the habit of inhaling a miasma of mysterious chemicals into their lungs with a device that is largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
But now that habit comes with a body count. Six confirmed deaths and 500 new cases of severe lung illnesses are a watershed that demands rigorous scrutiny of e-cigarettes, a product with a risk level that is dangerously out of balance with consumer knowledge and scientific understanding.
We only know that the likely culprit for this alarming spike in lung illnesses is some exposure to a chemical substance, but whether it’s from commercial or illicit products has yet to be established.
So for now, there is one unassailable course of action: “People should stop vaping,” says Judith Persichilli, New Jersey’s acting Health Commissioner, “until the FDA and CDC determine the cause of these illnesses.”
The only positive from this frightful development is that it has finally alerted every level of government to the fact that the vaping has exploded among young people, and motivated the FDA to pursue stronger regulation of a $22 billion industry that might be peddling poison.
The FDA, which last week announced that vaping giant Juul broke the law by marketing its product as “less harmful” than combustible cigarettes, is finally taking steps to ban the sale of flavored vapes, which are clearly aimed at children. That is what Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.) proposed last spring, in a comprehensive package that also included raising the age for all tobacco products to 21 and giving the FDA more regulatory clout.
On a state level, things are moving quickly. Senate President Steve Sweeney favors an outright ban on e-cigarettes, a laudable goal that would lead to a protracted legal wrangle, as the city of San Francisco (the only place to take this step) is learning. Gov. Murphy has formed a task force led by Persichilli, which will issue recommendations on how to handle the e-cigarette problem on Oct. 3.
And health experts in the Legislature — notably Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington) — are re-drafting bills that include a ban of flavored e-cigarettes, which they proposed back in 2016, when we already knew that manufacturers used thousands of kid-friendly flavors to hook kids on nicotine. They go by names like Fruit Suicide and FrappaPow.
Vitale also wants to prohibit online sales and ban the refillable-variety of e-cigarettes, because “unlike the disposable commercial products, which are made in a somewhat controlled process, the black market stuff could come from somebody’s bathtub.”
Since this is largely about keeping this away from kids, some facts bear repeating.
The CDC found that in 2018, 1.5 million more students used e-cigarettes than in 2017 — a 78-percent increase among high-schoolers, and a 50-percent increase among middle-schoolers. Virtually all of these 3.5 million school-aged users — 97 percent of them — favor flavored varieties.
The FDA’s 2018 tobacco survey was unambiguous: “Flavors …are very appealing to youth, and are frequently listed as one of the top three reasons this population uses e-cigarettes.” We already had a public health emergency on our hands, and it could take years to research the medical dangers of a product that is barely a decade old. It’s time to slam on the brakes and put science and government to work.
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