E-cigarette boom among kids more than Feds’ fault

Electronic cigarettes have surpassed traditional smoking in popularity among teens, the government’s annual drug use survey finds.
Electronic cigarettes have surpassed traditional smoking in popularity among teens, the government’s annual drug use survey finds. The Associated Press

While federal and state policymakers apparently have taken a smoke break, e-cigarette use has boomed among kids.

A government survey released last week confirmed the worst fears of public health officials. In the absence of meaningful regulation, vaping, as it is known, has seeped into the mainstream, surpassing regular cigarette smoking among adolescents.

More than 17 percent of high school seniors, 16 percent of sophomores and, alarmingly, nearly 9 percent of eighth-graders said they had used an e-cigarette in the past month, according to the nationwide Monitoring the Future survey.

Just last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that e-cigarette use among high school students had more than doubled between 2011 and 2012. Only 4.7 percent of high schoolers had tried vaping three years ago when that study started. Clearly, that was then.

How could we have let this happen? Data have suggested for years that even in vapor form, nicotine is addictive and bad for children and that e-cigarettes and vape pens, with their candy flavorings, can act as a gateway to smoking for impressionable teens.

But for a variety of reasons, some understandable, some suspect, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking forever to craft e-cigarette regulations. After years of study and litigation and extended public comments, FDA officials have spent nearly six months, with no end in sight, ruminating on whether it should finalize basic draft rules.

Just to review: In three years, e-cigarette use among kids has gone from 4.7 percent of all high schoolers to 10 percent to, now, up to 16 percent and 17 percent of juniors and seniors. If these rates are any indication, six months is a lot of adolescent lungs.

The FDA needs to stop stalling. And California lawmakers need to step up in the feds’ absence.

Though vapers point out that e-cigarettes are less lethal than “analog” tobacco, long-term effects are unknown.

Every day seems to unveil some potential new hazard, from carcinogens in the vapor to burns from shoddy quality control at e-cigarette factories in China. Yet 2014 saw one reasonable measure after another on e-cigarettes defeated at the state level.

Why? Maybe e-cigarette makers and the Big Tobacco firms that increasingly own them can supply the answer.

Another study, this one by the University of California, San Francisco-based Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, found that, during the past seven years, from the Governor’s Office on down, the number of state lawmakers refusing tobacco money has steadily dwindled.

Meanwhile, only one e-cigarette bill has managed to become state law: the state’s 2010 ban on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. That would be fine if Internet sales weren’t so poorly policed that, well, an eighth-grader could go online and circumvent them.

When then-Sacramento Assemblyman Roger Dickinson tried close the loophole, members of his own party – recipients of tobacco money – shut him down before his bill made it out of committee. Dickinson is out of office now, having been defeated in his run for state Senate by fellow Democrat Richard Pan. A pediatrician, Pan should take up where Dickinson left off, as should other legislators.

As state lawmakers return to the Capitol, they should make it a priority to shut down the teenage market, not only for tobacco in general, but for e-cigarettes and vaping. That goes, too, for Attorney General Kamala Harris, who has joined other attorneys general in calling for tougher FDA regulations but taken little action on e-cigarettes beyond that.

If municipalities can crack down on e-cigarettes, and they have, surely state government can summon the courage to do more than blow smoke when it comes to kids’ health.