San Francisco voters, upholding their elected leaders’ enlightened lawmaking, bashed Big Tobacco and its interests, providing a potent primary election message to public health officials nationwide to curb the growing menace to young people posed by e-cigarettes and vaping.
By a 2-to-1 margin, Bay Area residents supported their Board of Supervisors’ tough ban — which may be the most stringent in the nation — on sales of flavored tobacco products, including vaping liquids packaged as candies and juice boxes, and menthol cigarettes.
Specialized liquids, peddled in flavors like bubble gum, chicken and waffles, and unicorn milk, are key to the youth craze for vaping, in which teens use small devices about the size of a computer flash drive to get a nicotine-fueled boost. They can, with standard hits from liquids in devices like the trendy Juul, regularly consume as much nicotine as is found in a pack of cigarettes.
Parents, teachers, coaches, and public health officials have expressed growing dismay that vaping, and its wild popularity is hooking a generation on nicotine and, as research is demonstrating, it also is serving as a gateway to the proven and deadly harms of cigarette smoking.
Menthol flavored tobacco products, meantime, long have been a target of anti-smoking advocates, who point to study after study showing how these kinds of cigarettes contribute to African-Americans’ tobacco use and injury.
Big Tobacco slammed the ballot ban on its flavored products, pouring $12 million into a multilingual campaign across print, broadcast, and social media (see photo above of a sticker from their disinformation effort). They covered the city with billboards with catchy phrases like the one in this ad and others slamming what they called “the Prohibition Proposition.”
Voters in the tech-drenched, multicultural city didn’t flinch in rejecting the corporate bunk, including the potentially accurate but increasingly shaky argument that vaping should be encouraged to help cigarette smokers suffer less tobacco damage and unhook themselves from a powerful addiction.
Eric Lindblom, a Georgetown Law professor and former Food and Drug Administration tobacco official, told the New York Times that Big Tobacco “had a strategic chance there to show that they are actually walking the walk and talking the talk about moving smokers to nonsmoker tobacco products. Instead they took this scorched earth approach, trying to eliminate the entire flavor ban. They failed, and now other jurisdictions can say, ‘Why should we compromise?’”
Michael R. Bloomberg — the billionaire, former mayor of New York City, who as an ardent anti-smoking foe contributed $1.8 million of the $2.3 million spent by health advocacy groups in support of the flavoring ban— said in a statement that San Franciscans’ vote “shows that the tobacco industry, no matter how much money it spends on misleading ads, can be defeated. This vote should embolden other cities and states to act.”
A scion of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco family also denounced Big Tobacco’s campaign in San Francisco, and, he, too has urged the federal Food and Drug Administration to take a vigorous stand against vaping.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has made a public point about how his agency is cracking down on under-age tobacco sales and use, including efforts to jaw at vaping, its liquids, and its device makers. But he and the Trump Administration gave Big Tobacco a giant pass, delaying plans by the Obama Administration to impose strict regulations on vaping products.
In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, including costly, difficult medical care they may need to tobacco-related health injury. The FDA needs to act more aggressively to ensure a new generation doesn’t get hooked on smoking via vaping, because, as Gottlieb has pointed out, cigarettes are “the only legal consumer product that, when used as intended, will kill half of all [its] long-term users.”
Tobacco abuse, mostly by cigarettes, is a leading cause of several different kinds of cancers, and a significant contributor to other heart and lung diseases. A growing number of studies also point to how e-cigarettes, and their fostering of addictive nicotine use, act as a gateway for young people to take up destructive cigarette smoking. Concern also has grown about vaping and harms that users may suffer due to their liquids and substances in them, as well as that occur when these get turned into user-inhaled “smoke.” The kid-alluring packaging and “fun” flavors also can be dangerous to youngsters, who grab their older siblings vaping liquids, gulp them down, and are poisoned.
There’s no accounting for how endemic and entrenched the nasty habits of smoking and vaping have become among rebellious and peer-driven youths. Kids will be kids but we grown-ups, especially our lawmakers (cheers, again, for those in San Francisco) and regulators, need to step up to safeguard the young against dangerous follies.