By MARSHA MERCER
Remember Joe Camel? In the 1980s and 1990s, anti-smoking advocates blamed the cartoon figure for encouraging kids to smoke.
R.J. Reynolds insisted it was not marketing to children but in 1997 pulled ads for Camel cigarettes that portrayed the “Smooth character.” The White House praised the company’s decision.
“We must put tobacco ads like Joe Camel out of our children’s reach forever,” President Bill Clinton said.
Twenty-one years later, President Donald Trump’s administration blames flavored e-cigarettes for encouraging kids to vape.
“We cannot allow a whole new generation to become addicted to nicotine,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, declared Wednesday.
Those were welcome words from an administration that’s been busier rolling back regulations than proposing new ones to protect health.
In some ways, foes of tobacco have won. After decades of anti-smoking messages that cigarettes are dirty and smelly, only about 16 percent of American adults smoke.
But e-cigarettes present a new health danger in part because they look nothing like conventional cigarettes. Some sleek nicotine-delivery systems resemble a flash drive and can be charged in a computer’s USB port.
“Experience freedom from ash and odor. No mess. No fuss,” Juul Labs, the dominate e-cigarette maker with 72 percent of the market, says on its website.
E-cigarettes do not have the harmful chemicals of regular cigarettes, but some provide as much addictive nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.
“The developing adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to addiction,” FDA said in a statement.
That makes e-cigs “an almost ubiquitous – and dangerous – trend among teens,” Gottlieb said. “The disturbing and accelerating trajectory of use we’re seeing in youth, and the resulting path to addiction, must end. It’s simply not tolerable.”
More than two million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes last year, he said, as he announced a series of measures aimed at stopping the “epidemic” of teen vaping.
The FDA sent more than 1,100 warning letters to stores for the illegal sale of e-cigarettes to young people under 18 and issued 131 fines to stores that continued selling to minors.
The agency also gave Juul and four other manufacturers 60 days to prove they can keep the devices out of kids’ hands. If they don’t, the FDA threatened to pull flavored products off the market.
Trump’s FDA last year extended an Obama-era deadline for review of most e-cigarette products from August of last year to 2022. Public health and anti-smoking groups are fighting the extension in court. If e-cigarette companies fail to improve their products voluntarily, Gottlieb said, he may reconsider the longer deadline.
E-cigarette makers insist they are not marketing to children. But that’s what tobacco companies argued – both in company statements and at congressional hearings – before Joe Camel was put out to pasture.
The Vapor Technology Association, the industry’s trade group, says the products are designed for adults who want to quit smoking, and companies want to keep e-cigarettes away from minors. Vaping is safer than conventional cigarettes, the industry contends, and FDA’s actions could make public health worse by sending millions of ex-smokers back to conventional cigarettes.
The potential for helping adults quit smoking makes this war on nicotine more complicated than simply killing a cartoon character.
The administration is “committed to advancing policies that promote the potential of e-cigarettes to help adult smokers move away from combustible cigarettes,” Gottlieb said, but “that work can’t come at the expense of kids.”
Critics of FDA’s campaign called the agency’s measures a gift to the tobacco industry, which has found e-cigarettes a tough competitor. Tobacco stocks surged on the FDA news.
Health and anti-smoking groups praised the FDA’s plan, but said more needs to be done sooner rather than later. Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids wants an immediate ban on all flavored e-cigarettes.
A generation ago, a tobacco company recognized Joe Camel was a public relations nightmare and needed to take a hike.
E-cigarette companies need to recognize their own p.r. disaster. To prove their products are only for adults, they should ditch sweet flavors like mango, fruit medley and cool cucumber. That would be kid friendly.
©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.