Editorial: We need a stronger message to teens on dangers of vaping

Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim announced a lawsuit Tuesday against e-cigarette manufacturer Juul Labs, contending the company "intentionally created addicted teen customers to continuously come back looking for another fix." The merits of the specific case against Juul will be sorted out in court, but there is a broader reach to the alarm bells that Nerheim is sounding. In short, teen vaping is here, it's dangerous and it poses the threat of a broad epidemic.

Illinois lawmakers recognized that truth when they included e-cigarettes in a new law that prohibits the sale of tobacco and tobacco-related products to anyone under 21 years old. Juul, it is worth pointing out, has launched major ad campaigns with some of the nation's largest print and online news organizations declaring its support for such restrictions on the sale of vapor products.

The sincerity of Juul's appeal may be open to question, but there's no room for doubt that it and Illinois' new regulations are running several steps behind the e-cigarette monster that is rampaging through suburban middle and high schools.

At a news conference announcing the lawsuit, Stevenson High School senior Vrushali Thakkar described classrooms in which students use e-cigarettes when teachers leave the room. A New York Times story this week reports the son of an anti-e-cigarette activist describing the flavors he and his friends prefer and the appeal to some kids of products whose higher nicotine content provide "a bigger head rush."

But, evidence isn't merely anecdotal. The National Institute on Drug Abuse cites studies showing that more than 16% of high school seniors - and nearly 10% of eighth-graders have used e-cigarettes in the past month. Another National Institutes of Health survey found that about 37% of high school seniors reported vaping in 2018. The figure was 28% a year earlier.

While vape companies like to declare that their product is intended only to help people stop smoking, they may be working toward the precise opposite. The NIH report points to studies showing that nearly 31 percent of students who vape graduate to traditional cigarettes and tobacco products within six months.

According to The New York Times, Trump administration health officials recognize the problem and are considering counter measures. The outgoing FDA commissioner proposed isolating e-cigarette products at retailers where they won't be accessible to teenagers and requiring merchants to demand purchasers show identification.

If adopted, such measures may be a start. But the situation also requires a broader societal response. Nerheim predicted Tuesday that "it will take years" to overcome the impact e-cigarettes have made on the present generation of teenagers. That is not going to happen merely by punishing companies that have made impressionable children think it's harmless and cool to use their dangerous product. It also requires broad recognition by all of us of the need to make them realize that neither of those things is true.

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