Commentary: FDA Senator Dick Durbin Post: Vaping Targets Children

A woman smokes an electronic cigarette at the Digital Ciggz store in San Rafael, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

For American Children, the FDA cannot deny the reality of today’s youth vaping epidemic.

Last week, the FDA approved the first ever e-cigarette remaining on the U.S. market, the tobacco-flavored Vuse RJ Reynolds vaping device. This came after the FDA ignored its responsibility for regulating e-cigarettes for years, allowing a huge wave of products to illegally flood the market. Today, millions of children in America have fallen victim to the tobacco and e-cigarette industries and are hooked by the FDA’s inaction.

This recent approval is alarming and could pave the way for other addictive products to keep in the market, such as Juul and Puff Bar. This would be a dangerous decision for the future of public health in America. That’s why.

I am familiar with the Big Tobacco tutorial. Their business model has been painfully clear for decades: to create an addictive product, lie about its health effects, and target advertisements to children. Finally, when the public knows the truth, Big Tobacco tries to invent new, “less harmful” and “cutting edge” nicotine products. Electronic cigarettes are the tobacco industry’s last source of profit. These products, which come in flavors such as unicorn poop and gummy bear, have become very popular with children. Before the pandemic disrupted regular full-time schools, more than 5 million children were vaping.

Unsurprisingly, old tobacco giants like Altria, the Marlboro cigarette maker, have seized the opportunity to reach a new generation of customers by investing billions of dollars in new e-cigarette companies like Juul. And Vuse, the second most popular brand among schoolchildren, is owned by RJ Reynolds of British American Tobacco – the same company that created the cartoon character Joe Camel many years ago to sell cigarettes to children.

The FDA has characterized the use of e-cigarettes by young people as an “epidemic.” One can imagine that this public health agency will do everything in its power to put an end to this “epidemic”.

By law, e-cigarette companies are required to demonstrate to the FDA that their products are “suitable for protecting public health.” As one of the sponsors of this law, I know this is a high bar – the FDA is required to balance the risk of child cravings for these foods with the potential benefits for adults who quit smoking.

Child-friendly flavored e-cigarettes have nothing to do with the market, as evidenced by the proven role they play as a deadly route to nicotine for children who would otherwise never have picked up a tobacco product. We’ve also seen that when an agency takes half-measures and leaves certain kid-friendly flavors like menthol on the market, kids will always gravitate towards those products. So it’s appropriate, and I approve of this agency, that FDA regulators have so far turned down all flavored applications.

However, I am deeply concerned that the FDA is ignoring reality when evaluating e-cigarettes. By granting this recent clearance to RJ Reynolds, the FDA is downplaying the fact that the Vuse brand is now even more popular with children than the now infamous Juul, and that the product’s nicotine concentration is at levels banned in many other countries.

Instead, the FDA stands ready to back the industry’s unsubstantiated claims that the Vuse e-cigarette will actually help adult smokers quit smoking. It is also worrisome that, after all these years, the FDA still believes that restrictions on advertising will prevent youth from using it. No tobacco company – and certainly not the minds behind Joe Camel – has ever been a responsible government administrator of its products, so the fact that the FDA has placed so much trust in this company to responsibly advertise its products is untrue.

The proof is clear that the industry idea is a smokescreen: 20% of high school students used e-cigarettes in 2020 compared to 4% of the adult population. We also know that companies like Juul and RJ Reynolds have invested millions in kid-friendly fragrances and sold their products to teens. The FDA must acknowledge this reality as it weighs in on Juul and other popular e-cigarette products in the coming days.

This is a personal question. My father smoked two packs of camels a day and died of lung cancer at the age of 53. I stood by his bedside in the hospital, where he fought with his last breaths. No child should ever go through this. Trust me: if there was a product that could prevent his suffering, I would be totally for him. However, e-cigarettes fell short of their stated health benefits and created far more problems than they solved. It is high time for the FDA to acknowledge this fact.

This is a deadly challenge to the FDA’s tobacco legacy. For the health of our children, the FDA cannot fail.

Senator Dick Durbin is a Democrat representing Illinois since 1997. He holds the post of the Senate majority, ranking second among the Senate Democrats. Durbin is also chairman of the Senate Judicial Committee and serves on the Appropriations and Agriculture Committees.

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