California has worked hard to reduce teen smoking, with significant success. Anyone who travels internationally has noticed how much more common smoking is in most countries than here at home. But new technology has given the big tobacco companies an opportunity to develop a new market for their products by hooking a new generation of kids on nicotine. Vaping is the new smoking. In just a few years, it has sneaked up on us, reaching epidemic levels among young people.
The tobacco industry's key to developing lifelong customers is to get them hooked when they are young. That is why so many of the new tobacco products are designed for, and marketed to, teens and younger children. The manufacturers say their products are designed to help adult smokers quit. What 30-year-old wakes up one day and says to himself, "Gee, I've never tried vaping. Maybe that would be fun!" And what adult smoker is enticed by flavors such as cotton candy, bubble gum and "unicorn poop?" And why is so much of the marketing focused on platforms used primarily by teens, where parents never even see it? It's really quite simple: People who don't begin smoking or vaping before age 18 generally don't begin at all.
Flavorings are the lure that draws kids in, and nicotine addiction is the trap that keeps them there long term. Some of the same compounds that enrich our food and drink, and are perfectly safe when ingested, can be toxic and dangerous when heated and inhaled, causing long-term health problems and permanent lung damage. But the "Most Harmful Substance" award belongs to nicotine. For clear, reliable information, please visit flavorshookkids.org, or the California Department of Public Health (cdph.ca.gov), or the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health (sccphd.org), or, perhaps best of all, the Stanford Medicine Tobacco Prevention Toolkit (med.stanford.edu/tobaccopreventiontoolkit.html).
Governments at every level are paying attention. Our Congresswoman, Anna Eshoo, is chairwoman of the health subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. In a letter to Palo Alto City Council on May 18, she wrote, "(In January), I wrote to the director of the Center for Tobacco to express my concern that leaving any flavored products on the market, even if they are sold at vape shops or other 'adult only' retail locations, still put our children at risk."
Our State Senator, Jerry Hill, is the author of a bill in the current legislative session that will, if it becomes law, prohibit the retail sale of most flavored tobacco products statewide. (Our Assemblyman, Marc Berman, is a principal co-author.) The bill has been passed by the Senate and is now in the Assembly. It was passed this week by the Assembly health committee and faces several more daunting hurdles in the next few weeks. (The health committee hearing is archived at assembly.ca.gov/media/assembly-health-committee-20200804/video, beginning at 1:50:30.)
Palo Alto's and Santa Clara County's new ordinances and (if it becomes law) SB 793 will reduce the number of children becoming addicted to nicotine in the future. But we must not forget those who have already become addicted. They will need ongoing treatment, counseling, and support from trained professionals. I hope we can find the resources to provide that. Since both vaping and COVID-19 can attack and weaken the lungs, we can expect vapers, even young ones, to have increased susceptibility and worsened outcomes. In the age of COVID-19, we should watch the research and redouble our
efforts to protect ourselves and our families.
These aren't the only local efforts to restrict vaping. A year ago, the Palo Alto PTA Council, with about 6,000 members, most of whom are parents of students in our 17 public schools, set up a committee to study vaping and flavored tobacco and to develop a resolution to guide the California State PTA's advocacy on the topic. I served as co-chair of this committee. At the PTA's statewide association meeting in June, our resolution was adopted with a 99% "yes" vote of all the attendees. Ninety-nine percent. That is not a typo. Parents of every description, from every corner of California, have reacted strongly to the heartbreaking struggles of our teens who try something on a whim or a dare and become hooked for life.
In addition to thanking our city council, I want to thank our elected representatives at the county, state and federal levels, and our public health experts in government and in academia for their efforts to protect our kids from nicotine addiction. I believe I am speaking not just for myself but for thousands of parents locally and many more statewide. As a longtime friend of mine in Palo Alto reminds me periodically, "If we can't keep our children safe, it doesn't much matter what else we do."
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