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Our view: Legislature should restrict marketing of e-cigarettes

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A person poses with an electronic cigarette, or e-cigarette. E-cigarettes are battery-operated products that turn nicotine into a vapor that is inhaled by the user.
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Speaking at a Post-Bulletin Dialogues program more than a year ago, doctors from Mayo Clinic's Nicotine Dependence Center expressed reservations about the safety of electronic cigarettes.

More research is needed, they said, because preliminary studies have conflicting results. Furthermore, the smoking-cessation experts were worried teenagers were trying e-cigarettes because they perceived them as a safer alternative to combustible cigarettes.

More data became available this week, which bolsters the doctors' concerns about our young people. The 2014 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey found 28 percent of teens have tried an e-cigarette. It also found that one in eight students, or 12.9 percent, said they had used one in the past 30 days.

The annual survey, conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health, had some good news, noting the percent of high school students who smoked traditional cigarettes in the past 30 days dropped from 18.1 percent in 2011 to 10.6 percent in 2014. It was the steepest decline in smoking ever recorded by the statewide youth survey. Another significant figure, though, was that overall rate of tobacco use — traditional cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes — stayed about the same at 24.2 percent.

"I have a sense of déjà vu about e-cigarettes," said Dr. Ed Ehlinger, Minnesota Department of Health commissioner. "Tobacco companies are using old and well-tested marketing techniques to introduce children to a new product that delivers nicotine and potentially leads to the burden of addiction. We need to take a hard look at what actions we can take at local and state levels to stop this trend."

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We share Ehlinger's concerns. The marketing strategies are all too familiar.

The vapor is often flavored with candy, fruit, mint or chocolate oils, making skeptics suspicious that e-cigarettes are being marketed with one primary goal: to hook as many children as possible and make them lifelong customers. The survey found that 57 percent of students saw e-cigarette ads on television in the past 30 days. Nearly half, 48 percent, saw ads in convenience stores. Teens also saw e-cigarettes in ads on the Internet, magazines and billboards, and in the hands of actors in movies or on television.

Even though you must be 18 to buy them, e-cigarettes are easily accessible to young people. Teens can lie about their age when ordering off websites, or they can buy them from older friends and relatives.

E-cigarettes, which are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, are battery-operated devices resembling regular cigarettes. The liquid, which contains a host of other substances besides nicotine, is heated and turns into a vapor you inhale. The resulting vapor cloud mimics cigarette smoke.

While some adults have used e-cigarettes, despite the lack of consensus about their safety and efficacy, as a means to wean themselves off the nicotine habit, we're concerned it could be a gateway to a lifelong addiction, creating more smokers than they help quit.

We're gratified that anti-smoking measures, such as bans on indoor smoking and a $1.60-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax in 2013, have discouraged conventional cigarette use among teens. But the rise in e-cigarette use among young people is concerning because nicotine has been documented to harm adolescent brain development.

Until we have more conclusive data on the safety of e-cigarettes, one of the priorities of the 2015 Legislature should be to add restrictions on e-cigarette advertising and marketing.

Otherwise we fear we'll be conducting more public forums in the future, discussing why we failed to protect our children from the lifelong struggle of nicotine addiction.

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