NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Vaping getting out of control among nation’s young people

When we talk about efforts to curb smoking in America, we must inevitably include vaping in the conversation.

The latter, it was hoped, would be a solution for stopping the former. But it seems that intent has gone awry. While many adult smokers have been able to kick the habit by turning to e-cigarettes, health officials are finding the proliferation of vaping across the country is drawing more and more young people to tobacco.

Electronic cigarettes, often touted as a lower-risk source of nicotine for adult smokers, have been sold in the U.S. for more than a decade. They are battery-operated devices people use to inhale an aerosol, which typically contains nicotine, flavorings and other as-yet unregulated chemicals. Nicotine is what makes both tobacco cigarettes and e-cigarettes addictive.

One of two studies published online Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association details previously released figures that indicate the surge in use of e-cigarettes by youth 18 and younger shows no signs of slowing down.

A government survey of more than 20,000 youth conducted earlier this year found an estimated 28% of high school students and 11 percent of middle school students said they had used e-cigarettes within the previous month. That means there are approximately 5.3 million young users — 1.7 million more than last year — even though federal law prohibits sales to those under 18.

The same report, according to an Associated Press story this week, also found that Juul is the preferred brand for 60 percent of high school students who are e-cigarette users. Most of them used flavored e-cigarettes, nearly 60% favoring mint or menthol.

Which leads to the second, separate study, conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California, who surveyed 1,800 Juul users nationally. They found that mint was the most popular flavor among Juul users in grades 10 and 12, while it is the second most popular flavor among middle-schoolers. That compared with only 6% of teens in all grades who preferred menthol.

In a June editorial, News-Sentinel.com quoted Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box, who said vaping has increased the number of Indiana youth who will get hooked on the smoking habit. In that editorial we insisted steps need to be taken to discourage tobacco and e-cigarette use in Indiana, especially for our youth, because that’s when the vast majority of smokers get their start.

One of the main reasons vaping has become popular with youth is the enticement of flavors (not to mention the capability of using marijuana in the devices).

Juul Labs, based in San Francisco, is the best-selling vaping brand in the country. Facing state and federal investigations, the company stopped selling some flavors in stores last year and only sold them online. Last month, it voluntarily stopped selling all of its fruit and dessert flavored e-cigarette pods, leaving only mint, menthol and tobacco-flavored products on the market.

“Exemptions for mint and menthol are problematic if we’re really thinking about preventing kids from using these products,” USC study co-author Jessica Barrington-Trimis, said in the AP story this week.

In September, the Trump administration proposed a nationwide ban on flavors, including mint and menthol. And a few states have moved to prohibit flavored e-cigarettes.

This past week an Indiana Legislature’s public health study committee approved a recommendation from a state legislative panel that Indiana’s legal age for buying cigarettes be raised from 18 to 21. That recommendation includes both tobacco and electronic cigarettes.

News reports quoted chairman Sen. Ed Charbonneau of Valparaiso as saying he doesn’t expect action until at least the 2021 legislative session when a new state budget is considered. Why? Because Indiana cigarette tax revenue could decline with the change.

We hope our Legislature will not put tax revenue ahead of the health of our citizens — especially our youth — and realize that the consequences of inaction will lead to the continuing increase in addiction to nicotine in Indiana and the ensuing increase in health expenses over the long haul.