Influencers Opinion

California has a youth vaping crisis. Immediate action is needed to stop it

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Vaping is a crisis in California that will require a strong policy response and courage to stand up once again to the tobacco industry. We have done it before, and we can do so again. But it’s important to learn from the success of California’s previous tobacco control experience.

In 1988, voters passed a ballot initiative creating the single largest anti-tobacco public health intervention of its kind. The initiative and a follow-up act provided for taxation of tobacco products. It specifically earmarked funding to help prevent youths from smoking and to help smokers overcome their addiction. The program was broad based and sweeping, involving multiple state agencies with funds for health education including a media campaign, programs for city and county health departments and grant programs for school districts.


Implementation of the initiative wasn’t perfect and we can learn from the imperfections, as well. The legislation to implement the initiative was watered down by Gov. Pete Wilson and the legislature and some of the funds were diverted in an effort to appease the tobacco industry. But even with serious deficiencies in implementation, the initiative was considered the “most innovative public initiative ever designed to change long-term health of a state’s population and improve the public health capacities of state and local government.”

Vaping is a crisis that has been a decade in the making and elected officials need to respond immediately.

A recent survey indicates that 12.7 percent of California high school students use tobacco, with nearly 11 percent of high school students using electronic smoking devices. And more than 25 percent of all cancer deaths in California are attributable to tobacco. The tobacco industry spends about $1 million per hour to market their deadly, addictive products. Annual healthcare costs in California caused by tobacco amounts to $13.29 billion. And with vaping on the rise, those numbers will skyrocket.

Research has shown that interesting flavors, such as mint chocolate or frozen lime drop, encourage teens to try them without realizing that vaping pens and JUUL pods have dangerously high levels of nicotine. Teens who vape are twice as likely to suffer respiratory problems. And, additionally, the devices can explode causing serious injury.

The surgeon general warns that e-cigarettes may contain other harmful ingredients, including flavor additives that are linked to lung disease. And last week the CDC reported that 1,479 lung injury cases and 33 deaths in 24 states were associated with e-cigarettes or vaping products. It was also reported that a teenager died last week from vaping illness in Montana. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a pediatric physician with Stanford University and the founder of the Tobacco Prevention Toolkit, told the Huffington Post that the newer vaping products are “engineered to easily deliver more nicotine to the brain, faster, with less harshness.” Given that the youth brain is still developing until age 25, they are significantly more likely to become addicted to nicotine than adults.

Jeannine English

The city and county of San Francisco took the bold step of banning the sale of e-cigarettes effective next year. Michigan took the first statewide shot at vaping last month by banning the sale of flavored e-cigarette products. Their courageous action was quickly followed by New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Sadly for us, the California has again stepped aside and chosen not to rattle the tobacco industry.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, following in the footsteps of former Gov. Pete Wilson, caved into the tobacco industry, saying that he doesn’t have the authority to enact a flavor ban. The real question is: Why not? If the legislature and the governor continue to shirk their responsibility, we may once again need to go directly to the voters through a ballot initiative.

We must, at a minimum, ban flavored products, and develop and fully fund a multifaceted public health intervention program involving multiple state agencies, city and county governments and school districts. And, we must outlaw the e-cigarette industry’s predatory marketing.

It’s a matter of life and death.

Jeannine English is the former national president of AARP. She is also a Health Care influencer for McClatchy’s California Influencers series.
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