In the sea of bad health news that has washed over our nation this year, a glimmer of hope has emerged. Efforts to curb the recent escalation in youth vaping might actually be working. Newly released data from the national Monitoring the Future study show that the dangerously high rates of vaping have essentially plateaued and more young people than ever before now perceive vaping as risky or harmful. That should be a good sign. When teens see a certain form of substance use as risky or harmful, it typically indicates that use will decline in years to come.
Had there been comprehensive and consistent regulation across all vaping products, the findings from this year’s survey could have been even better news for teen health. Despite sharp declines in the reported use of Juul — the most popular brand of nicotine vaping products among young people and the one most heavily targeted by recent regulations — overall youth vaping rates have not decreased since last year. This finding underscores how significant loopholes in the regulations aimed at curbing youth vaping have allowed other products to occupy the market space left open by more heavily regulated brands like Juul.
The vaping industry’s substantial lobbying effort — now largely synonymous with the tobacco industry, which owns most of the popular vape brands — has resulted in a regulatory landscape riddled with holes. For example, instead of imposing a blanket ban on all flavors in vaping products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) exempted menthol, a minty flavor favored by teens. And, instead of applying the new restrictions to all vaping products, recent action by the FDA limited its flavor ban to “pod” or “closed system” products like Juul. This allowed disposable, single-use and other “open system” refillable devices – such as those sold by the brands Puff Bar, SMOK and Suorin — to make significant inroads into the youth market. These products come in a broad array of sweet and minty flavors. It should come as no surprise that these flavors are the key draw for teens, while the high dose of nicotine in these products ensures that those who try them will become addicted and keep coming back for more.
Delayed action, half-baked measures, policy reversals, inconsistent enforcement of existing rules, and regulatory decisions heavily influenced by the industry that’s being regulated have been the hallmark of the federal government’s response to the youth vaping epidemic. The fact that youth vaping rates have been responsive to the limited bans and restrictions that have been put in place illustrates how effective government action can be. More consistent and comprehensive regulations could do so much more to not only steady, but actually eliminate, this recent threat to the public health.
The nation is finally awake to the serious health implications of vaping, thanks to research showing that it increases the risk of becoming addicted to a range of substances, damages respiratory, cardiac and immune functioning, and heightens the risk of contracting and transmitting COVID-19. Growing awareness among youth about its risks as well as emerging strategies to effectively prevent and treat vaping and nicotine addiction make this the right time to redouble our efforts to end youth vaping.
The incoming Biden-Harris administration can end the tobacco industry’s longstanding hold on serious tobacco control efforts, which has largely been tolerated by past administrations. Now is the time to take resolute and commonsense action toward ending youth vaping. We cannot afford to allow the significant but reversible health threat of vaping and nicotine addiction to persist unchecked.
Linda Richter, Ph.D., is Vice President of Prevention Research and Analysis at Partnership to End Addiction.