Commentary: Work to stop rising nicotine addiction among teenagers

FILE - This Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018 file photo shows a Juul electronic cigarette starter kit at a smoke shop in New York. According to letters released on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, the head of the Food and Drug Administration is questioning whether electronic cigarette maker Juul and its new partner Altria are following through on pledges to help reverse the current epidemic of underage vaping. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Since 2013, Utah youth experimentation with and use of e-cigarettes has more than doubled. After years of consistent declines in teenage smoking rates, nicotine use among young people has sharply increased due to the rise in popularity of the e-cigarette.

The new foes — electronic cigarettes and products such as JUUL — are luring millions of middle and high school students into nicotine addiction, and the Surgeon General has even gone so far as to call the rising use among teens a national epidemic.

E-cigarettes deliver nicotine through an aerosol, often referred to as vapor, which contains varying amounts of toxic chemicals that have been linked to cancer, as well as to respiratory and heart disease. Popularly known as “vaping,” use of e-cigarettes skyrocketed with the introduction of JUUL, a small device that resembles a USB flash drive, making it easy to conceal.

In Utah, one in 10 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders is vaping, and nearly one in four eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders has experimented with e-cigarettes.

Vaping may have serious long-term consequences for our young people. The nicotine in both e-cigarettes and other tobacco products can harm the developing adolescent brain, particularly those areas that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control.

On their packaging, e-cigarette companies often use flashy, colorful designs and eye-catching imagery that have been shown to grab the attention of younger people. Additionally, these companies target youth by producing a wide variety of sweet and savory flavors, such as grape, mint and bubblegum, that can make teens view vaping as something more akin to the consumption of candy than to the consumption of potentially harmful, addictive chemicals. One study found that 84 percent of youth would not use e-cigarettes and other tobacco products if they were not flavored.

Until recently, e-cigarette companies marketed their products everywhere: on billboards, over the radio, and on social media platforms, such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. But these companies have now come to realize that such extensive marketing campaigns are no longer necessary, as youth have begun to use their own social media to promote e-cigarette products, essentially becoming brand ambassadors for the very companies that are getting them addicted to nicotine

Once again, we are calling on the FDA and our state Legislature to regulate e-cigarettes as rigidly as it regulates other tobacco products. For every 20 high school students in your community, three are currently using e-cigarettes. We must all help Utah’s youth resist the peer pressure that frequently pushes them to experiment with e-cigarettes. It’s an uphill battle, but by working with families, schools and communities, we can fight back. Maximize impact, Utah, support stronger restrictions on flavored electronic cigarette products and limit access for kids.

Sarah Woolsey, M.D. family medicine, and Michael Measom, M.D., addiction medicine, are members of the Utah Tobacco Free Alliance