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FDA Cracking Down On E-Cigarettes As Vaping Among Teens Reaches ‘Epidemic Proportions’

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The Food and Drug Administration released a scathing report last month that states e-cigarette use among kids has reached “epidemic proportions.”

As more minors experiment with fruit flavored nicotine dispensers like JUUL e-cigarettes, a popular form of vaping, the FDA is cracking down on how e-cigarette companies are marketing their products to minors.

The FDA gave five major e-cigarette companies an ultimatum: get to the bottom of minors using e-cigarettes in 60 days or the agency could halt the sale of flavored pods. The agency also sent 1,300 warning letters to retailers.

Kenya Grant holds the limited edition royal blue JUUL e-cigarette. She said her favorite pod flavor is menthol for the “cigarette-y taste and cooling sensation.” (Kathleen Frost/WUFT News)

JUUL Labs sells e-cigarettes about the size of a computer flash drive that users can recharge via USB port. The e-cigarettes require liquid nicotine pods that come in eight flavors: Virginia tobacco, classic tobacco, mint, cucumber, fruit, menthol, creme and mango.

JUUL Labs CEO Kevin Burns released a statement in response to the FDA report reiterating the company’s commitment to preventing underage use of their products:

“We want to be part of the solution in preventing underage use. We believe it will take industry and regulators working together to restrict youth access.”

Despite their purported efforts, more than 2 million teenagers used e-cigarettes in 2017, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Roger Papke, a pharmacology professor at the University of Florida, researches nicotine receptors in the brain. He said e-cigarettes contain nicotine in the form of salts that is absorbed into the bloodstream, and that exposure in teenagers and young adults can interfere with the natural development of the brain.

“Nicotine is the most insidious addiction that we know of,” Papke said.

Jackie Johnson, spokeswoman for Alachua County Public Schools, said schools are seeing increased use of e-cigarettes, and that JUULs’ flashdrive-like design makes it easier for students to bring and hide them at school.

David Shellnut, principal of Gainesville High School, said e-cigarettes haven’t been a significant issue for GHS, but students caught with the devices on campus are given one day of out-of-school suspension.

For long-time smokers like Becky Montgomery, 44, a dental office manager in Lake City, e-cigarettes could be life saving, helping her to break her cigarette addiction after 30 years.

“They satiate me and take away the urge to smoke,” she said.

Montgomery worries if e-cigarette sales are further restricted, teenagers will just go back to smoking cigarettes.

“Banning them isn’t going to stop the problem,” she said. “Where does it stop?”

“Students are having trouble sitting through one-hour class periods now,” she said. “They need to constantly get a fix of nicotine.”

James Boswell, 20, an economics student at UF, started vaping a year and a half ago to help him focus on schoolwork, but says teenagers’ use of e-cigarettes is a widespread problem.

“The company’s just making an alternative to smoking,” he said. “But I don’t want there to be some new epidemic of addiction.”

Victoria Gibney, 27, chair of Tobacco Free Alachua’s community partnership, said dealing with this rise in underage vaping has been complicated for educators, student resource officers and parents.

Over the past six years, the number of minors ages 11 to 17 who are experimenting with e-cigarettes has increased 361 percent and those regularly using e-cigarettes has increased 581 percent, according to Gibney.

“Students are having trouble sitting through one-hour class periods now,” she said. “They need to constantly get a fix of nicotine.”

To help combat this growing nationwide problem, Ted Kwong, JUUL Labs spokesman, outlined in an email some pillars of the company’s youth prevention initiative:

  • Restricted online sales to people 21 and older
  • Avoid Snapchat, a social media app primarily used by adolescents
  • Remove all product-related content from its social media accounts

JUUL Labs’ regulation and public policy states: “We did not create JUUL to undermine years of effective tobacco control, and do not want to see a new generation of smokers.”

While the rapidly growing e-cigarette industry works to meet the FDA’s demands and timeline of November 12, some smoke shop owners are trying to curb teen use on their own.

Curtis Cybenko has owned and operated High Tides Tobacco and Gifts on Southwest 13th Street for the past 25 years and refuses to sell them.

“JUULs are jacked up nicotine,” he said. “I’m losing sales, but at least I sleep good at night.” 

About Kathleen Frost

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