Late last month, I joined State Representative Jesse MacLachlan and prominent community leaders in Clinton for a panel discussion on vaping. I only wish we scheduled it sooner. In recent months, vaping and associated injuries and deaths have become a pressing issue. We must take it seriously and protect public health.
As of November 1, more than three dozen vaping-related cases of lung disease and injury were reported to the state Department of Public Health, part of a national trend of more than 1,800 injuries and 37 deaths. Vaping experts are currently studying and searching for answers as to what’s causing the injuries, with suspected sources ranging from black-market products containing THC, the active intoxicating ingredient in marijuana, to potential chemical reactions to vaping flavors, to the vapes themselves.
The uncertainty behind this matter – that so many causes could be leading to these very real symptoms – underscores its severity. When they were introduced, vapes were sold as a low-risk alternative to smoking cigarettes, a way for smokers to reduce the damage they were doing to their lungs. But what we’ve learned in the years since is their target audience quickly became younger than smoking adults.
Reports have shown for years that JUUL, one of the largest manufacturers of vaping products, knew its marketing and use of flavors in its products were targeting teenagers and schoolchildren more than they were adults. Just this last week, a Reuters report found the company knew young people were attracted to their e-cigarette products – and that flavored e-cigarette products directly appealed to high school students. And yet, it did not change course. “A lot of people had no problem with 500 percent year-over-year growth,” one former JUUL manager said in the Reuters article. Further, the New York Times reported JUUL knew some of its products were tainted or contaminated – and refused to recall them.
Where does that leave us? More than 5 million young people used e-cigarettes in 2019, according to an annual survey released by the FDA and CDC. That figure represents an increase of nearly 1.5 million students, more than 27 percent of high school students, and more than 10 percent of middle school students. And nearly one in three said they started because of flavors including candy, mint and chocolate.
Where does that leave us today? In many locations, vaping is receiving a defacto ban. The state of Massachusetts put a four-month moratorium on vaping sales, and my colleague Senator Saud Anwar called for a similar one in Connecticut now. While the General Assembly in 2019 voted to raise the age of access for tobacco from 18 to 21, we know there’s more to do – especially as a proposed ban on flavored vaping products was not passed, just one of many ideas to protect our youth.
As the numbers show, this is a nationwide problem. In Connecticut, we owe it to public health to take action. I will continue to study and learn from vaping forums, experts and members of school communities in months to come, and I intend to support any legislation designed to protect and improve the health of our state.
State Sen. Norm Needleman