Those of us who came of age during the Moral Majority era are old enough to remember when conservatives would organize to protect children from harms peddled by giant corporations. Whether it was taking on porn in large hotel chains, explicit Abercrombie ads, or internet gambling, Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson, and their fellow travelers taught a generation of culture warriors how to bring predatory profiteers to their knees with the righteous market power of the parent brigade. When did we lose our mojo?
Lately, the libertarian wing of the movement, using the counterfeit language of free marketeers, has criticized President Trump and his Food and Drug Administration for taking on Big Tobacco Vape, with a recent announcement that kid-baiting, fruity-flavored e-cigarettes would have to comply with the law and come off the market until they have authorization from FDA.
Don’t get me wrong. Unlike the Bernie crowd, we conservatives expect great things from capitalism and the corporations that drive the American Dream. But with that freedom and power, we also expect these businesses to ensure their products do not harm our children. Newsflash: blind crony corporatism ain’t conservative.
Enter Juul Labs, Altria, and other purveyors of the powerful addiction devices known as e-cigarettes or “vapes.” Resembling flash drives, they work by heating a concoction of chemicals containing high-concentration nicotine and deliver a powerful, and addictive “hit” inhaled by users. “Vaping,” as it’s called, has gone viral in middle and high schools, with the most popular brand turning into a verb: “Juuling.”
If you are a parent of teens like me, I know I’m preaching to the choir. Every kid, including yours, has tried vaping. Almost a third of all high schoolers have vaped just in the last month. Not only is that a scandalously high number, but it’s a dramatic increase over an already scandalously high increase over the 20 percent rate from 2018. The 2018 rate was scandalously higher than the 2017 rate—almost 80 percent higher among high schoolers and almost 50 percent higher among middle schoolers.
What’s all the more heartbreaking is that one of the greatest public health stories of the last generation has been plummeting youth cigarette youth use, from almost one-third of adolescents in the mid-1990s to 5 percent last year. But of course, that success was all before Juul got its clutches into our kids, with its 75 percent market share hooking an entire generation on these apparently irresistible nicotine delivery platforms.
Some claim that the rise in youth vaping is a public health win, asserting (without clinical trial data) that e-cigarettes are safe because they don’t have all the carcinogens and other toxins that have led to so much death and disease in users of combustible products. That’s certainly the argument Juul Labs makes, anyway.
I know because, until recently, I was the White House public health policy advisor to President Trump, and I was on the receiving end of Juul’s grandiose claims of being a global white-hat on a mission to save the world from Big Tobacco. Of course, at the same time Juul was lobbying us, they were secretly wedding-planning with Big Tobacco.
Altria, the original parent company of Philip Morris, the maker of Marlboros, soon paid a cool $12.8 billion for more than a third of Juul’s shares. And wouldn’t you know it—Philip Morris and the newly Juul-ified Altria are now in talks to reunite into one giant tobacco-palooza.
Still, it’s a free(-ish) country, and manufacturers have the right to sell tobacco products to adults, provided they have FDA authorization under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. This 2009 law—heartily supported by Philip Morris at the time—requires the FDA to authorize new tobacco products only if they are “appropriate for the protection of public health.”
In case you missed all that public health protection, you’re not the only one. A federal district court recently ruled that, because of the recent epidemic of youth vaping, e-cigarette manufacturers have until next May to submit their applications to the agency, laying out the scientific evidence for the public health case for their products. Since President Obama’s FDA left these products on the market for years, surely their manufacturers can produce that scientific evidence, right?
The evidence on the other side is piling up. First, kids are uniquely susceptible to e-cigarette marketing, in stores and online. The more they see, the more they initiate e-cigarette use, particularly when the product is kid-friendly fruity-flavored. And it usually is. FDA has cited vape manufacturers for intentionally targeting kids, with flavors like “Cotton Cookies” and “Watermelon Patch,” product packaging disguised as juice boxes or cereal, not to mention Juul’s potentially illegal health claims in schools.
Big Vape likes to argue that since kids are going to smoke something, e-cigarettes are “safe smoking.” Conservatives didn’t fall for that argument during the “safe sex” wars back in the day. That logic only works if these kids were smoking conventional cigarettes already, or were likely to do so.
In fact, studies show that kids vape first, and then switch to conventional cigarettes. One of the largest studies found that kids who vape are four times more likely to try conventional cigarettes than non-vaping kids. In other words, those fruity-flavored Juul ads are luring a new cohort of smokers into the Marlboro Man’s loving embrace.
Warming up to conventional cigarettes is only one of the risks of a Juul-induced nicotine addiction. Nicotine itself is particularly harmful to the developing adolescent brain. It addicts kids more quickly than adults—within a day or two! It affects working memory and attention (you’re welcome, teachers!). It increases depression and anxiety. The chemicals that the nicotine swims in, when heated, include carcinogens such as formaldehyde and heavy metals, and they inhibit the ability of the lungs to increase oxygen intake.
Perhaps the darkest side of e-cigarettes is their susceptibility to counterfeiting and modifications to allow vaping of purified THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. These marijuana pods deliver THC at extreme concentrations—this ain’t your daddy’s weed (and your daddy’s weed wasn’t as safe as advertised, either). These are the bootleg vapes that have caused deaths around the country in recent weeks with a mystery lung disease sickening more than 500 people, 16 percent of whom were kids, and two-thirds young adults.
Some of the loudest conservative groups criticizing the president’s policy of enforcing the law and protecting kids from vaping are the Goldwater Institute, the Conservative Enterprise Institute, and Americans for Tax Reform. I generally agree with these groups’ agenda to beat back big government, but one must gently note that Altria is a repeat donor to each of them. What they also forget is that it’s not a free market if the customers are addicted to the product.
Big Vape is intentionally addicting our kids to nicotine, merging with Big Tobacco while disguised as anti-smoking crusaders, peddling known and unknown chemical harms to the adolescent brain, contributing to youth conventional cigarette initiation, providing a dangerous new delivery platform for potheads, and spreading a deadly lung disease, all while operating outside of the legal framework developed by Congress.
Tell us again, fellow conservatives, why President Trump and his FDA are the problem?