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An increase in The Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulation addressing the surge in new vaping technology engulfing U.S. high schools and colleges is generating widespread debate over the future of public health.
The FDA is labeling this overwhelming increase in recreational e-cigarette use as an “epidemic” among teenagers and college students. Compact designs, attractive flavors and simplistic technology have led to controversial marketing outcomes, sparking a social phenomenon among young Americans.
September featured the launch of the FDA’s largest coordinated enforcement campaign in the agency’s history, addressing the unlawful marketing and distribution of vape products to minors. A country-wide undercover operation during the summer resulted in the issuance of over 1,300 fines and warning letters to vape retailers found guilty of illegal sales. The FDA followed up with a mandate calling for industry leaders to form comprehensive plans to limit youth access within a rapidly approaching 60-day deadline. According to the FDA statement, failure to do so will result in “requiring these brands to remove some or all of their flavored products”.
The controversy behind the FDA’s actions stems from opposing research finding e-cigarettes to be a safer alternative to combustible cigarettes. Despite the perceived benefits for current smokers, the FDA remains adamant in its decision, deeming the potential damage from adolescent addiction to be the greater issue.
“In order to protect kids, we’re going to encumber adult smokers by putting in place restrictions that make these products less attractive, or harder to purchase by adults,” said Scott Gottleib, FDA Commissioner.
Most prominent of these electronic smoking devices is the JUUL, which takes up roughly 75 percent of the industry’s market share, and whose brand has become synonymous with popularity among young adults. While JUUL has stood firm with positive intentions, the subtle nature of the device, characterized by its deceptive USB-like appearance, has made it a target for adolescent participation, especially on social media.
Last month, the FDA payed a surprise visit to the company’s San Francisco headquarters, seizing upwards of thousands of pages of documents detailing the company’s marketing and sales.
The Ohio State University’s Center of Excellence in Regulatory in Tobacco Sciences (CERTS) is addressing the explosive popularity of JUULS on campus. Dr. Megan Roberts, a CERTS member specializing in young adult usage, conducted a study that classified 25 percent of sampled OSU undergrads as current JUUL users or students who used in the past 30 days.
Roberts also points out that one does not have to look very far to see how these companies are marketing to young people. Shuffling through a slide show of posts from JUUL’s Instagram page, she revealed a slew of ads featuring distinguishably young people with the device in hand.
“It’s a perfect storm,” Roberts said. “They [vape companies] claim they are interested in helping current cigarette users switch, but you can see within social media a lot of parallels with tobacco companies 60 years ago; cool devices, sweet flavors, and now we have the internet where people can limit themselves to the information they want to hear.”
Vaping, despite being the “healthier” alternative, also carries a fair amount of risk for young adults. Early exposure to nicotine is known to impair key receptors of the developing brain, threatening longterm cognitive function and fostering future vulnerability to drug dependence. The JUUL is particularly infamous for its nicotine content–the juice within one disposable “pod” containing the same amount of nicotine as a traditional 20 pack of cigarettes.
According to Dr. Roberts, however, it’s not just nicotine that should be concerning. “ There’s a lot of other chemicals in there, including benzene, acrolein, formaldehyde, lots of things people often consider harmful or potentially harmful,” Roberts explained. “Unfortunately, before we can prove a health outcome we need time.”
Debating whether or not “vaping is safe” is a complex matter–one which different interest groups are attempting to answer from an incomplete picture. Vape companies present America’s long standing culture of cigarette use to market the relative advantages of their products. The FDA will assess any and every health risk associated with vaping as an independent threat for a new generation.