‘Urgent priority’: E-cigarettes erode decades of effort
Public health officials have spent millions of dollars over many decades trying to curb tobacco use, much of it designed to discourage kids from ever taking up the nicotine habit.
After all, quitting is great, but never starting is even better.
In Santa Clara County, as elsewhere, these anti-nicotine efforts were clearly effective — until the last decade — as fewer and fewer kids were lighting up. The decline in traditional cigarette smoking is something to celebrate, public health advocates say.
“We’ve made great gains, a lot of lives saved, a lot of health care costs reduced because of all this great work that was being done in the state of California and Santa Clara County,” says Nicole Coxe, who started battling tobacco companies as a youth.
Today she runs the County of Santa Clara’s Tobacco-Free Communities Program for the Public Health Department.
But Coxe is frustrated that a good bit of that progress has evaporated since about 2009. That’s when the first successful e-cigarettes hit the U.S. market. Now about 1 in 10 youth in Santa Clara County use tobacco products, primarily electronic cigarettes and similar devices, like Juul.
“The current issue is really the rise in e-cigarette and vaping-product use amongst our youth in this whole country and in this county,” says Coxe.
Nationally, the rate of e-cigarette use among youth has skyrocketed. Regular use of e-cigarettes among youth went from 1 in 100 to 1 in 4 in the last seven years, with much of the explosion in the past year alone.
“This is really an urgent priority of the Public Health Department in Santa Clara County due to such an alarming increase in youth vaping and use of e-cigarette products,” she adds. “These products contain nicotine, and we’re seeing youth get addicted.”
Teen advocates educate city leaders
Public Health is supporting adolescents who want to fight back against what officials see as unconscionable marketing practices aimed at getting kids hooked and turning them into lifelong smokers.
The County, for example, helps organize a school-based club called Community Advocate Teens of Today, or CATT. Among other actions, CATT members survey stores to see if they allow people under 21 to buy smoking-related products and how they’re being marketed. They ask their parents to join them in their cause. They educate City Council members directly to support the County’s efforts to curb nicotine use. (County regulations don’t apply outside of unincorporated areas, so city-based action is critical to effectiveness.)
CATT’s voice is strong. Health advocates say say it’s hard for a city official to turn away or dismiss earnest youths asking them to crack down.
Jenessy Lucas is a CATT member from Milpitas High School who says she nearly got sucked into the nicotine trap herself, as she’s seen so many of her friends do.
Jenessy and other CATT members discussed these issues with Milpitas Mayor Rich Tran recently.
“A lot of people in school,” she says, “are using vaping products or Juul instead of cigarettes these days, and they don’t really know what’s in it and how it can affect you.”
Vaping: gateway to addiction
When these products first appeared on the scene, they were marketed, virtually without evidence, as smoking-cessation aids for adults, and perhaps a safer alternative to traditional smoking. However, neither the FDA nor research backs e-cigarettes as an effective aid for quitting.
Although one can buy “juices” labeled nicotine-free to smoke in these devices, the addictive substance is often added — purportedly so cigarette smokers trying to break their habit can gradually step down their dosage until they no longer crave it.
However the contents of these products remain unregulated, and despite being labeled nicotine-free, studies have found that some products actually do contain nicotine. Additionally, while many e-cigarette products do contain lower levels of other harmful chemicals found in traditional smokes, the long-term effects are still largely unknown.
Finally, e-cigs and other such products are packaged in eye-catching colors and infused with palate-pleasing flavors and often can be seen on store shelves and in ads near schools, prompting alarm and outrage among public health advocates.
“At the County and in Public Health, what we’re really aiming to do is educate the community, parents, elected officials about how the tobacco industry is continuing to market to kids right here in this county, Coxe says.
What’s happening on the federal level (New York Times)