A lesson on vaping from sugary drinks of yore: Crack down on Big Tobacco

punchy-300x262Those who are senior enough to remember the allures of sweet drinks like Tang, Hawaiian Punch, and Kool-Aid also may need to be sage enough to share a deep, evidence-based distrust and disapproval for the nefarious actions of Big Sugar and Big Tobacco. Those suspicions may need to be renewed in regulators’ crackdowns on vaping, its flavorings, and flavored tobacco cigarettes.

Yes, the federal Food and Drug Administration now has formally detailed its plan to curb the soaring youthful purchases and uses of e-cigarettes for vaping, telling merchants that they soon will be required to keep these goods, including flavored liquids that the devices catalyze, in separate walled off areas of stores and away from those age 18 and younger. This will affect not only big retailers like Walgreens and Wal-Marts but also gas stations and convenience stores.

Online vendors soon will be required to have mechanisms, so proof of age becomes part of cyber buys of e-cigarettes and their associated products.

The FDA stopped short of banning vaping flavors, and the agency declined for now to bar sales of menthol, mint, and other flavored tobacco cigarettes.

The agency is still taking public comments on these measures, which won’t be finalized until current FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is gone and his announced successor, Norman E. (Ned) Sharpless, a physician-researcher and director of the National Cancer Institute, replaces him as acting commissioner

Anti-smoking advocates renewed their criticisms of the FDA actions on vaping, e-cigarettes, and flavored liquids and tobacco products as too little too late to address the latest assault on the health of the young by getting them addicted to harmful nicotine and cancer-causing smoking.

They got further reason for thinking the worst about industry deceit as researchers, digging into archives, published a new study showing how Big Tobacco, partnering with Big Sugar, hyped sugary drinks for kids in the 1960s and 1970s.

As the New York Times reported of the study findings:

Using child-tested flavors, cartoon characters, branded toys and millions of dollars in advertising, the [Big Tobacco] companies cultivated loyalty to sugar-laden products that health experts said had greatly contributed to the nation’s obesity crisis. At a time of mounting childhood obesity, with nearly a third of children in the United States overweight or obese and rates of type 2 diabetes soaring among adolescents, the study’s authors said it was important to chart how companies created and marketed junk food and sugary drinks to youngsters. ‘We have a chronic disease epidemic, but we don’t understand the vectors very well,’ said Laura A. Schmidt, an author of the study and a professor of health policy at UCSF School of Medicine. ‘These documents help us understand how food and beverage companies, using strategic and crafty tactics, got us hooked on unhealthy products.’

It turns out that Big Tobacco companies, in an earlier time, sought to diversify, expanding into the beverage business to keep flowing its already huge profits. As the newspaper noted:

They used their expertise in artificial flavor, coloring and marketing to heighten the products’ appeal to children. That tobacco companies once sold sugar-sweetened drinks like Tang, Capri Sun and Kool-Aid is not exactly news. But researchers combing through a vast archive of cigarette company documents at the University of California, San Francisco stumbled on something revealing: Internal correspondence showed how tobacco executives, barred from targeting children for cigarette sales, focused their marketing prowess on young people to sell sugary beverages in ways that had not been done before.

Big Tobacco hyped Big Sugar products by shifting marketing and advertising dollars away from sales to adults, especially thrifty moms, and instead targeting children with big-spending campaigns. These employed colorful cartoon characters —think “Punchy,” the straw-hatted Hawaiian Punch pitchman or the animated Kool-Aid jug — and they thumped another Big Tobacco innovation: multiple flavorings. They included promotions featuring toy tie-ins and giveaways of tchotchkes or swag.

The industry onslaught got further boosts when advances in packaging let companies sell easy-to-handle juice boxes with straws and marketers tied Tang to the hugely popular U.S. space program. Tang later was “repositioned” as a drink for tweeners, youngsters too old to want Kool-Aid or fruit juices but still needing a flavorful beverage of their own.

Big Tobacco raked in its profits but eventually exited the beverage business. The damage, however, was done.

In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and the wreckage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by smoking, bad diet, and excess weight. It’s unacceptable that so many youngsters struggle with obesity, diabetes, and other health challenges that are worsened by over consumption of sugary drinks. It’s unacceptable that the FDA has dithered in safeguarding young people from vaping and e-cigarettes, while also dawdling on protecting the general public, minorities especially, from the dangers of flavored cigarettes.

E-cigarette advocates keep promoting the notion that the devices are less harmful than their tobacco burning cousins. They say the devices offer a way to reduce tobacco cigarettes’ damages. The research doesn’t exactly affirm this, but more studies need to be done. Meantime, the argument for vaping and e-cigarettes seems to be that old reliable, Trust us.

Really, with what we know about how Big Tobacco pumped our kids (and us) full of harmful sugar? We’re supposed to be good with Big Sugar after it gamed research studies to downplay its product’s role in heart disease? No thanks, we’ve seen with sugary drinks how eager Big Tobacco can be to hook kids’ into unhealthy addictions, if nothing to get an early jump on ensuring a long and profitable consumer pipeline.

Dr. Sharpless has gotten good press, so far, as he moves into this new role at the FDA. But he needs to be sharper and more vigilant about the nation’s health than was his predecessor, especially in fighting off the siren songs of serpentine lobbyists and smacking down Big Tobacco. That can’t be a wrong move based on all we know already.

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