OPINION

Vaping is injurious to health

Measures being taken against e-cigarette companies in the U.S. could result in a dip in sales

The absence of vaping-related illnesses in the last 10 years that have seen increased use has often been cited to silence the critics of electronic cigarettes. But that is changing today. As of October 22, the number of patients with a mystery lung injury associated with the use of e-cigarettes was 1,604 from 49 States in the U.S. There have also been 34 deaths from 24 States.

The mysterious lung injury in e-cigarette users started in April, when 53 victims with a median age of 19 years in Illinois and Wisconsin were hospitalised, many under intensive care. The victims experienced coughing, shortness of breath and other symptoms. Their health had deteriorated so much that they needed to be hospitalised. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are yet to identify the cause of the lung injuries, the only commonality among all the patients is that they were e-cigarette users.

Flavoured products

In 2009, the FDA banned all flavours except menthol in cigarettes as it was convinced that they lured children and teenagers into the practice of smoking. According to a 2016 paper, internal documents from the tobacco industry revealed that flavours were used to target potential customers who were young. Despite overwhelming evidence of the youth largely favouring flavoured vape devices, it is unclear why the FDA did not act on these. It waited till September 11 for U.S. President Donald Trump to call for a ban on flavoured e-cigarettes before announcing its plan to remove all these devices from the market, at least temporarily.

On October 17, JUUL Labs suspended retail sale of flavoured e-cigarette devices (mango, creme, fruit, and cucumber) and cartridges pending a review by the FDA. The company’s deceit was not lost as the mint and menthol flavours, which an overwhelming majority of high school students prefer, are still available.

According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, the percentage of schoolchildren who reported using the mint and menthol flavours increased from over 42 in 2017 to nearly 64 in 2019. The fruit flavour, which has the most takers, dropped slightly from about 70% in 2017 to 66% in 2019. The 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey found more than 3.6 million middle- and high-school students used e-cigarettes that year, a sharp increase of more than 1.5 million from the previous year. The survey found that youth used flavoured products more often than in 2017. In 2019, more than a quarter of high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

Time-tested machinations

The dramatic rise in e-cigarettes use by children is not at all surprising. After all, e-cigarette makers have been following the time-tested machinations of big tobacco companies to a tee. Like in the case of cigarettes, constant exposure to e-cigarette advertisements on social media, print and TV contributed to higher rates of experimentation and use, studies found. Advertisements depicting e-cigarette use as glamorous, cool, attractive, liked by celebrities and as a symbol of freedom together with celebrity endorsements hearken back to the banned ploys employed by tobacco companies decades ago. The same is true of health claims that e-cigarettes are safer than tobacco cigarettes, and their endorsement by doctors as a tool to stop smoking, even in the absence of hard data.

Investigating advertising efforts

The tide is slowly turning. In May 2019 the Federal Trade Commission began investigating JUUL for its marketing efforts, including the use of social media influencers to promote its vaping devices. In mid-September, CBS, WarnerMedia and Viacom dropped all e-cigarette advertising and JUUL suspended broadcast, digital and print advertising. These measures could result in a considerable dip in sales as flavoured pods account for 80% of JUUL’s sales. But only time will tell whether dampening youth use is a ploy to secure FDA authorisation in May 2020.

prasad.ravindranath@thehindu.co.in

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