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ICYMI: PSI Chair Blumenthal Op-Ed: A 5-Alarm Fire— Stopping the Youth Vaping Epidemic

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – In case you missed it, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), penned an op-ed in The Hill on the findings of the Subcommittee’s newly released report, “The Youth Vaping Epidemic: Federal Regulation of E-cigarettes and the Rise of Juul and Puff Bar.” The op-ed can be found below, and the full PSI report, including the detailed list of findings and recommendations, can be found here and the appendix can be found here.

The Hill: “A 5-alarm fire: Stopping the youth vaping epidemic”

By U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)

The decline in cigarette smoking rates among American youth, one of the great public health successes of the early 21st century, may soon be completely overshadowed by failures to stop a new nicotine addiction epidemic: vaping. The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which I have chaired for the past year, has been examining the rise of JUUL and Puff Bar and the role of federal regulation in the youth vaping epidemic.

What struck us was the FDA’s glaring failure to forestall a new generation of nicotine addiction, resulting from an astonishing and appalling record of inaction and delay. Easily hidden, affordably priced, and alluringly flavored, e-cigarettes have exploded in use. Indeed, use among young people is threefold what it was a decade ago. Emboldened and enabled by a spineless FDA and complicit federal officials, the vaping industry borrowed from Big Tobacco’s playbook. It shamelessly marketed, pitched, and promoted to children with predictable results. Millions of kids hooked on nicotine, billions of dollars in industry profits, and countless costs in health care, now dramatically rising in the future.

Federal action is necessary — now. A collection of opportunistic vaping entrepreneurs continues to create a new generation of young nicotine addicts. The federal government must fix its mistakes and urgently act before it is too late.

In 2015, youth cigarette usage was on a major decline, but JUUL exploded onto the market—using its “Vaporized” ad campaign and social media push to promote its products as “colorful, approachable, dynamic, and fun.” Their design looked like a piece of new, sleek tech. A toy with colors and flavors like Fruit Medley, Crème Brulee, and Mango that drew young users in by the droves. These pods packed a punch: one pod equals a pack of cigarettes’ worth of nicotine. JUUL knew it was appealing to children and recognized that flavors were a major driving force.

At this point, the FDA had already spent years working on proposed regulation that would have required flavored tobacco products to be removed from the market. But they backed down after warnings of possible impacts on profits of vaping and tobacco companies and threats of industry lawsuits. Senior executive branch officials stripped out key provisions concerning flavors from the draft regulation — leaving a gigantic loophole in a 2016 regulation that could have stopped huge harm.

Year after year, more kids started vaping and Big Tobacco’s playbook was proven a winner for e-cigarettes. Youth addiction was a gargantuan goldmine.

Bombarded by reports on the dangerous health impacts of vaping and the role that flavors played in youth e-cigarettes use, the FDA in 2020 finally moved forward with a half-measure, enforcing restrictions on flavored cartridge-based e-cigarettes. The FDA left the door wide open for flavored disposable e-cigarettes to inundate the market.

Making the most of this new Wild West frontier were Nick Minas and Patrick Beltran who saw a market opportunity too lucrative to resist. Seeing an already popular disposable e-cigarette brand among youth, these business bros purchased Puff Bar and replicated JUUL’s slick practices.

They knew that flavors like Banana Ice, Blue Razz, Strawberry Banana, and Blueberry Ice appealed to youth, 5 percent nicotine concentrates hooked them, and cheap, disposable products kept them coming back for more. At one point, Puff Bar-related hashtags on social media had nearly 1 billion impressions. By 2021, Puff Bar was the most popular e-cigarette brand among middle and high school students, a trend that continued in 2022.

These days, Puff Bar is not the only problem. According to industry sales data, more than 5,800 unique disposable e-cigarette products are currently being sold in a variety of flavors, up a staggering 1,500 percent from 365 products in early 2020.

To this day, the FDA has failed to complete its review of applications for e-cigarettes with the largest market share and the agency only recently increased enforcement efforts against e-cigarette companies and retailers.

The results of my Subcommittee’s investigation are clear: the FDA must immediately complete its review of e-cigarette product applications and utilize the full weight of its enforcement power in partnership with other federal agencies. Congress must also support and fund research into youth nicotine addiction and raise public awareness to educate youth about the health risks of e-cigarettes and other tobacco products.

As the saying goes “where there is smoke, there is fire.” We face a five-alarm fire, and our response time has been abysmal. If we continue to permit predatory nicotine entrepreneurs to exploit and addict yet another generation, shame on us.

Richard Blumenthal is the Chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Blumenthal is serving his third term as a United States Senator from the State of Connecticut. He served as Connecticut’s Attorney General from 1991 to 2011, and was a key player in the national fight against Big Tobacco, helping end deceptive marketing aimed at children—a victory significantly lowering youth smoking rates, and compelling a multi-billion dollar settlement for Connecticut taxpayers.