Capitol Alert

California could crack down on vaping. But could it help teens quit smoking?

As California lawmakers consider whether a ban on flavored tobacco would prevent teens from using e-cigarettes, a newly released study found that vaping could be an effective way to help teens and young adults quit smoking.

The study, by the independent nonprofit Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

Researchers conducted “in-depth, qualitative” interviews of Californians aged 15 to 25 and found that nearly three-quarters of their subjects, 74 percent, had gone from smoking to vaping, and that they were “generally aware of the health consequences of smoking and engaged in use of nicotine products after considering the risks.”

Most teens viewed vaping as a way to avoid smoking.

“The study highlights the need for public health professionals to acknowledge harm reduction strategies of youth users of (vaping products) as public health messages are constructed and as policies for smoking cessation are crafted,” according to a statement about the study.

One 20-year-old who was interviewed said she started smoking at 15 and was unable to quit cold turkey. Now, she uses an e-cigarette.

“I still get the craving, but I’m more likely to reach for my vape versus a cigarette,” she said, according to a statement.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Tamar Antin, said in a statement that “I think we, as public health professionals, need to take a step back to consider whether our approaches to e-cigarettes have been shaped in way that will ultimately benefit the health of all young people.”

The study was released as lawmakers Wednesday gathered in Sacramento to promote Senate Bill 38, which would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in California.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, sponsored the bill, saying in a previous interview with The Sacramento Bee that anyone upset with the broad nature of the bill should “look at the surge in usage (by minors). It’s in the broader best interest of our youth to do that.”

In a separate study, also published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research this month, researchers found that for people who both smoke and vape, “dual use leads to a reduction in the number of combustible cigarettes, but total nicotine use and dependence increases.”

“We have seen this before with big tobacco: false claims of safety, flavors used to hook users, and marketing obviously targeted to youth. This bill takes immediate action to prevent another generation from tobacco and nicotine addiction,” Hill wrote in a statement supporting SB 38.

Many, though not all, vape products contain nicotine, an addictive substance also found in traditional tobacco products. The amount of nicotine in e-cigarette products varies, and many vendors allow customers to determine how much, if any, nicotine they want.

Hill points to a recent Food and Drug Administration report that found that in 2018 more than 3.6 million middle and high school students use e-cigarettes, double the number of the previous year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared that while vaping may benefit smokers looking to quit, it is not safe for teens or people who are pregnant.

Hill and several other lawmakers convened Wednesday to hold a news conference at the Capitol, where they touted support for the bill from the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the American Lung Association.

The bill also has the support of several California municipalities, health organizations, Sierra Club California and hundreds of individuals.

Opposing the bill are trade groups and associations lobbying on behalf of the flavored tobacco product industry.

One of the most notable opponents of the bill is JUUL Labs, producer of a vape product that gained notoriety as being especially popular with young people.

“We have taken aggressive action to combat underage use of our products, while preserving the opportunity for adult smokers to switch from combustible cigarettes, which contribute to over 40,000 deaths a year in California,” a spokesman for JUUL said in a statement Wednesday. “Flavors are a complex issue. We believe flavors play a critical role in switching adult smokers from cigarettes; we see the results in our own behavioral research.”

The spokesman acknowledged flavors can also appeal to teens, and said that, in response to that, the company stopped shipping flavored pods to retailers, instead selling them only on the company website.

The bill also is opposed by Cigar Association of America, which argued in a statement that SB 38 could run California afoul of federal regulations. While the primary target of SB 38 is e-cigarette products, flavored pipe, cigar and chewing tobacco also would be banned under the bill.

Swedish Match, which manufactures cigars, snuff and chewing tobacco, also opposes the bill unless it is amended, arguing that smokeless chewing tobacco products “are not likely to appeal to youth.”

A spokeswoman for the American Lung Association argued, in support for SB 38, that the bill would protect “countless Californians.”

“Candy-flavored tobacco has led to countless youth using tobacco products and menthol cigarettes have long been used by Big Tobacco to target communities of color. We can’t let that continue,” said Lindsey Freitas, senior director with the agency.

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