Why do e-cigarette makers suddenly want to be regulated?

Jessica Glenza in New York
Photograph: Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images

Lobbyists are pushing to increase the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21 in states across America.

But public health experts have warned the bills are often not what they appear, and contain loopholes and weak enforcement that could actually benefit big tobacco, because the laws often serve to prevent any future tightening of restrictions.

In effect, the industry seems to be pushing for lax regulation now, to head off harsher regulation later.

Related: How many US high school students smoke e-cigarettes?

The push on legislation comes as the vaping industry, and e-cigarette maker Juul in particular, is coming under intense government pressure. Vaping is widely regarded as less harmful than smoking, but health authorities worry a new generation is becoming addicted to nicotine.

John Schachter of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said: “We’ve seen them publicly pushing for ending youth access through ‘tobacco 21’ – as such bills are often called. “But we have a number of concerns on that front.”

He said: “They try to portray it as, ‘We’re for tobacco 21, case closed.”

He added that tobacco lobbyists then “try to water it down, and weaken it” when public health authorities push for additional provisions.

Fears about vaping’s health effects have intensified since severe, pneumonia-like illnesses linked to vaping made 530 people ill in dozens of states and killed seven. The illness has not been traced to any single product or device.

Though Juul has not been specifically implicated in cases of lung injuries, the company controls roughly 70% of the American e-cigarette market, and has had an undeniable appeal to teens.

Roughly 8 million US adults and 5 million teens vape, according to the health secretary, Alex Azar.

For decades, tobacco lobbyists opposed tobacco 21 legislation, often arguing such laws would mean young people could join the military and vote at 18 but not buy a pack of cigarettes.

Dr Robert Crane, a family medicine professor at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and the founder of Prevent Tobacco Addiction Foundation, has sought to push tobacco 21 laws almost exclusively since 1997.

“In each and every state they were killed, absolutely slaughtered,” he said about the laws, “because the industry was so stealthily and skilfully against us. Fast-forward 20 years and we kept running and kept getting beat.”

Then, about last year, lobbyists for groups such as the Vapor Technology Association began writing tobacco 21 legislation in places like Arizona, the Center for Public Integrity reported.

Lobbyists “managed to get terrible tobacco 21 bills in Texas, Virginia and Arkansas and Utah”, said Crane. “Juul and Altria have their lobbyists out there pushing 21 in every single state.

Health advocates say the bills are often problematic.

In Texas, a recently enacted law exempts military members from the 21 age limit, and also prevents cities and towns from enacting stricter age limits. Juul and Altria, the parent company of Marlboro that owns a third of Juul, supported the bill.

In Arkansas, a tobacco 21 law barred cities and towns from adopting any regulation more restrictive than the state’s on the “manufacture, sale, storage, or distribution of tobacco products”. That effectively bars cities and towns from banning flavored tobacco products, such as menthol or mint e-cigarette cartridges. Juul also supported that legislation.

As of March 2019, Juul Labs was running ads to support tobacco 21 legislation in 22 states and Washington DC. The company has said the push is part of a plan to, “successfully address” the teen vaping epidemic. Juul shut down its social media account, said it has worked to stop minors from buying vape pods online and is working to trace its products.

Already, public health experts have said efforts to stop teen vaping have failed. The rate of teen vaping rose to more than one-quarter of students in their final year of high, the New England Journal of Medicine reported Wednesday. About 12% vaped 20 out of last 30 days.

A spokesman for Juul said the company prefers “clean tobacco 21 bills”, but at times “state level dynamics and politics” mean it will support bills that preempt cities and towns from stricter legislation.

“For well over a year, we have publicly supported raising the minimum purchasing age for all tobacco and vapor products, including Juul, to 21 years in the US,” the spokesman said. “Tobacco 21 laws in the US fight one of the largest contributors to youth usage – social sourcing (obtaining products through family and friends over the legal age) – and they have been shown to dramatically reduce teen-use rates.”

“Current efforts by the vaping industry, government agencies, and schools have thus far proved insufficient to stop the rapid spread of nicotine vaping among adolescents,” government researchers wrote in a letter to the editor of the journal.