Earlier this month, Michigan passed a ban on flavored e-cigarettes after a string of illnesses and deaths were linked to vaporizers. The response was announced under emergency rules created by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in part because many of those affected were minors. The ban outlaws the sale of fruity e-cigarette flavors, like mango and cherry, but does not limit the sale of flavors like mint, menthol and tobacco.
The response to this bill has been mixed, with many praising Whitmer for pushing Michigan to be the first state to take action against the epidemic of recreational vape use by minors. Others, like business owners and legal e-cigarette users, believe this is a poor decision that could cause businesses to lose money or lead people to seek out illegal sources of flavored vaping products, which can be dangerous. The Editorial Board believes this legislation is a small step in the right direction, but it is rushed and insufficient.
There is no denying the problem between minors and nicotine. E-cigarette usage has skyrocketed since products like Juul hit the market, and a significant number of those new users have been minors. Even here at the University of Michigan, it probably isn’t hard to find someone who has illegally vaped before. The rhetoric expressed in the media tends to blame these young people for their addiction, citing the vaping craze as a Generation Z phenomenon and diminishing its seriousness. But young people are a vulnerable group, susceptible to the precise marketing of e-cigarette companies, peer pressure and curiosity. Young vape addicts need to be viewed as people with just that — an addiction.
A major cause of this epidemic comes from the way these products are marketed and presented to youth. Companies like Juul make their products seem attractive and cool. Juul is already under investigation by the Food and Drug Administration for illegal marketing practices, claiming their products are “safer than cigarettes,” even “totally safe,” and for targeting minors. Juul has even been accused of tailoring their ads to schools and summer camps and admitted to sponsoring a camp in Baltimore when interrogated by a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee.
Whitmer’s plan addresses this, prohibiting the use of words like “clean,” “safe” and “healthy” in the marketing of vaping products. An existing law forbidding vaping billboard ads will be more strongly enforced with the ban as well. As witnessed in the opioid crisis, corporations are skilled at finding loopholes in order to still sell their product. Perhaps Whitmer could employ an extended-liability model, wherein companies like Juul are legally bound to provide reparations to those harmed by their products. Outweighing their monetary benefit with high costs in this way could be enough to discourage them from selling dangerous products.
Additionally, adopting European models of marketing traditional cigarettes could help, such as printing images on the packaging that show how nicotine damages the body. Whitmer could look to programs, such as Truth, that are able to reach a wide array of teenagers because they know how to tailor their programming to younger audiences effectively. There also need to be new programs and government Public Service Announcements dedicated to advising against e-cigarette use in minors and helping those already affected.
Whitmer’s ban also fails to acknowledge that the flavor of e-cigarettes will not be enough to discourage teens from vaping. Thousands of young people now have nicotine addictions that will be satisfied one way or another, whether it’s from a mango-flavored Juul pod or a cigarette. For the 354 possible recent cases of vaping-related lung illness in the U.S., many involve oils purchased from unlicensed vendors. Yesterday, a Wisconsin drug bust showed the true extent of this hidden market. Police found close to 100,000 vaping cartridges in a small-town condo. Investigators from the Center for Disease Control believe that “home brews” and contaminants such as THC found in black market vape substances are the most likely culprit for the reported health issues, rather than the standard vaping products that have been widely used for years. Whitmer’s ban could do more harm than good by pushing users to look more to illegal marketplaces and do-it-yourself solutions that are more likely to cause immediate and lasting health problems.
The solution to this epidemic does not stop simply with bans on vaping products. Michigan’s youth need comprehensive rehabilitation plans to quell their addictions, and this policy should be influenced by the young people who are being targeted by e-cigarette manufacturers, or by representatives who truly understand them. Whitmer cannot simply ban a product and then leave teenagers to fend off their addiction themselves.
It’s also important to ponder Whitmer’s quick action on this issue, when other crises – like that in Flint – have been on-going for years. Whitmer hasn’t reinstated free water bottles for the citizens after former Gov. Rick Snyder cut the program, and she did not meet her lead pipe replacement goal of late July.
Whitmer’s attempt at solving the vaping epidemic is good in principle, but only goes so far in combating the issue. In order to truly stop minors from seeking nicotine and THC in harmful ways, Whitmer needs to expand her plan to include rehabilitation, restrictions on marketing and comprehensive, inclusive education programs for youth on the dangers of e-cigarettes. The lives of Michiganders and our youth are at stake.