It’s not every day that a CEO of a major corporation voluntarily warns potential consumers against using his or her product. But underage consumers are a special case.
“Don’t vape. Don’t use Juul,” Juul CEO Kevin Burns said Thursday in an interview on “CBS This Morning.” “Don’t start using nicotine if you don’t have a pre-existing relationship with nicotine. Don’t use the product.”
Nice try. As a former smoker who quit tobacco with the help of electronic cigarettes, I appreciate the benefit that a little vaping can offer in easing the process of weaning oneself off traditional cigarettes, aptly nicknamed “cancer sticks.”
Of course, I was only trading one form of nicotine delivery for another. Quitting e-cigs is a whole new challenge. You may lose the tar and other dangerous ingredients in tobacco by vaping, but you still have nicotine, a powerfully addictive drug that is toxic enough to be used in pesticides — and addictive enough to rank with heroin on the hard-to-quit scale.
Vaping as an aid to quit smoking trades one addiction for another, as I have learned the hard way. But at least my doctor smiled approvingly. With the jury still out on how harmful vaping might be, she said, “at least, you’re not smoking.”
Right. But for how long? I vaped on, suppressing my skepticism as I fed my habit. My lungs seemed to feel healthier. Maybe I could just keep on vaping until scientists find clear evidence that, yes, indeed, I’m killing myself.
Now we seem to be sliding in that direction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 450 cases of severe respiratory illness among people using e-cigarettes in 33 states and at least six deaths, including one in Illinois.
“[The] severity of the illness and the recent increase in the incidence of this clinical syndrome indicates that these cases represent a new or newly recognized and worrisome cluster of pulmonary disease related to vaping,” according to a report by health department officials in Wisconsin and Illinois, who conducted a joint investigation of 53 patients.
Still, the definitive cause of the mysterious illnesses remains unknown. Vaping and the research about it is too new for scientists at the CDC and elsewhere to know, for example, how many of the injuries and deaths followed vaping of nicotine or a host of other possible chemicals, such as THC, the major psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
That’s a big concern. Any drug bought from strangers on the street, as we have learned in the opioid crisis and elsewhere, exposes the user to unknown lethal and even fatal peril.
But many agree with Dick Durbin, the U.S. Senate’s second-highest ranking Democrat, that the nation is in “a public health crisis that could have been avoided if the Food and Drug Administration had acted at any point over the past 10 years to properly regulate e-cigarettes and the accompanying kid-friendly flavors and products.”
Speaking at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago on Monday, Durbin called on acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless to, among other actions, immediately ban all e-cigarette flavors other than tobacco, and ban all devices not approved by the FDA from stores nationwide. He also called on the FDA to send letters to all schools in the nation warning of the dangers of vaping and asking each school to spread the word to parents and students.
Those flavors are a controversy in themselves. Juul and other leaders in the vaping industry claim to be interested only in adult customers, as Burns insisted. But like the tobacco industry, which came under fire for its cartoon figure “Joe Camel” and other suspiciously youth-oriented marketing, the vape industry has walked a fine line between marketing their products as a health care device or a tasty, trendy treat.
Of course, there has been pushback against the drive for more regulation of e-cigs, no matter how well-intended. Much of it comes from supporters of marijuana and THC legalization who seek more freedom of choice for consumers, not less. So do I, but for adults, not kids.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him e-mail at cpagechicagotribune.com.