‘Emergency’ roundtable on vaping, menthol cigarettes grows support for expanded ban
In the wake of what some have called a national crisis, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams hosted an emergency roundtable Tuesday to survey advocates on the effects of flavored tobacco products, and to help draft an action plan.
The discussion — which included health experts, clergy members, parents and other opponents — focused largely on the dangers of vaping and menthol cigarettes both in schools and within communities of color. All of those at the roundtable lent their support to a pair of City Council bills — one sponsored by Councilmember Fernando Cabrera, and another by Councilmember Mark Levine — which would restrict the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and menthol cigarettes, and which the borough president has formally supported.
According to new data released by the city’s Health Department, in 2018, about 13,000 middle school students reported using e-cigarettes in the previous 30 days — the majority of them seventh and eighth graders. Recent Food and Drug Administration data also show that in New York alone, almost 28 percent of high school students are using e-cigarettes, compared to just under 5 percent who smoke traditional cigarettes.
Officials have said the uptick threatens decades of hard work fighting youth nicotine use. Panelists echoed that Tuesday.
“The flavors are what’s hooking these kids,” Mimi Boublik of Parents Against Vaping said. “We’re creating a generation of nicotine addicts … and there’s no treatment. Throwing out the Juul isn’t going to necessarily do it for them.”
While the e-cigarette industry claims the products are only intended to help adults kick the habit, usage continues to trend upwards within city schools. Some critical of the proposed vaping ban have said they worry it will lead smokers “back to the pack.”
E-cigarettes, however, are increasingly popular among children and teens — and arguably worse than traditional cigarettes, Health Department officials reiterated this month, stressing that big e-cigarette brands like Juul can contain as much nicotine as a whole pack of cigarettes.
A spokesperson for Juul has told the Brooklyn Eagle in the past that it does not sell “kid-friendly flavors,” and that it recently pulled the handful of flavors it does sell (among them, creme, mango and “fruit”) from shelves. But, taste — and brand — aside, the Health Department contends that the health risks remain the same.
Along with nicotine, the aerosol from heated e-liquids can contain harmful chemicals like formaldehyde, benzene and diacetyl from flavoring, officials said. Across the country, a reported six people have died of vaping-related lung illness.
Speakers also stressed that the effects of menthol cigarettes — which kids might turn to if they are told they can’t vape — are not to be forgotten.
“I support the anti-vaping agenda 100 percent, but I don’t want anything lost on what’s happening with menthol. It needs to go, just like vaping needs to go,” Lorraine Braithwaite-Harte, health chairman of the NAACP’s New York State Conference said. She stressed that menthol products — which simply “mask the nicotine” — have been “poured into the black community” for decades.
Now, it’s being poured into schools, she said.
According to newly-released data from the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey, the percentage of high school e-cigarette users who reported using mint and menthol flavors increased almost a quarter since 2017. Menthol cigarettes are easier to start smoking, and harder to quit, speakers said Tuesday, and more than half of kids who smoke cigarettes also smoke menthols.
“[When it comes to flavored e-cigarettes,] yes, we have a huge issue,” said Aicha Bamba of Flavors Hook Kids’ New York City campaign. “But, when it comes to menthol, we have a historic issue.”
“The thing about tobacco and nicotine is, it stays in melanated skin longer than it would someone who is less melanated, making it easier for us to get hooked and harder for us to quit,” Bamba said. “Right now, what we’re asking the City Council to do is fix a historic issue.”
Adams’ gathering came about a week after Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a temporary ban on flavored e-cigarettes. Cuomo also signed an executive order directing state agencies to deploy education awareness programs and cessation materials, and better combat e-cigarette marketing campaigns targeted at youth.
The city’s Department of Education has said it will continue to work with the Health Department to curb vaping in schools.
“E-cigarette use is harmful, and in partnership with the Health Department, we are educating students and families about its risks,” Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “We issued guidance to schools this spring and will re-issue it this fall, and we’ve made information available for school, students and families in multiple languages.”
President Donald Trump has also pledged “strong rules and regulations” regarding the sale of e-cigarettes, and said he would report back in the next couple of weeks, though some have said any regulation is unlikely to take effect soon.
As for Adams’ agenda, he said the roundtable was just the beginning.
“The biggest error we make in communication is that we believe it actually happened,” he said, further noting that the Tuesday conversation was just a small part of a much larger one — one, he added, that will include marijuana when envisioning a “smoke free” city. “The bottom line is, we’re concerned.”
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