‘We’re on the front line’: the teens pushing for flavored e-cigarettes ban

Jessica Glenza in New York

The Massachusetts state house of representatives passed a bill banning flavored tobacco products, including flavored e-cigarettes, in a major defeat for America’s embattled vaping industry.

Behind the bill’s momentum is an unlikely pressure group: suburban Boston teenagers, outraged at what they saw as the immense health damage done to their friends and peers in their own school, as well as across Massachusetts and the rest of the US.

The teens pushed for the bill after they said they had watched one classmate after another get addicted to vaping – or “Juuling”, as they called it – in the school bathroom, on the field and even in the classroom.

But like teenaged activists lobbying for gun control and to curb climate change, the students said they have come up against an old enemy: big spending to defend corporate interests.

“I felt the adults – they do just care about the money,” said Jessica West, a 16-year-old student at Holbrook middle high school, about 20 minutes from Boston. “They’re not really worried about all the kids getting addicted to these products, they’re making money – that’s all that matters to them.”

In their effort to restrict e-cigarette flavors, members of the school’s civics club, with their adviser, Mary Clougher, attended town halls, state legislative hearings and rallies across Massachusetts.The bill is now headed to the state senate.

“We are still trying to get it passed. We just want to see where the bill will take us in the future,” said Aaron Cullity, 15, also a student at Holbrook.

The Holbrook teens are not the first to come out against e-cigarettes. A YouTube campaign called Juulers Against Juul features children who are self-professed addicts calling for restrictions. However, the Holbrook civics club effort appears to be the first successful legislative push, and the tobacco industry has responded with an all-out lobbying campaign against the flavor bans.

The industry push follows huge investments by big tobacco into vaping. Most prominently, Altria purchased a 35% stake in Juul in 2018. Altria is the US maker of Marlboro brand cigarettes, and is better known by its subsidiary’s name, Philip Morris. Neither Juul nor Altria responded to request for comment.

In a packed senate hearing room last July, groups linked to tobacco companies pushed talking points based on questionable research. Convenience store owners, historic allies of the tobacco industry, showed up to a legislative hearing en masse in matching T-shirts. And lobbyists with a financial relationship to tobacco companies testified against 15-year-old kids.

“Banning is a silly policy, prohibitions don’t work,” Jon Shaer, the executive director of the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association, said. “That bill, however, went way beyond vape, and went into menthol and mint tobacco products.”

In 2017, Altria gave a donation of an undisclosed amount to the convenience store organization, and Shaer said the company also pays dues. An Altria attorney, Molly Slingerland, sits on the convenience store association’s board. Shaer declined to say how much Altria pays his organization annually.

Slingerland and Shaer have also appeared together on a state illegal tobacco taskforce. Shaer, like tobacco companies, argues a ban on menthol cigarettes and e-cigarette flavors will push sales on to the black market and toward criminal organizations.

“You had industry lobbyists there for Juul, you had people there for the e-liquid manufacturers, you have convenience store owners there – a wide range of people opposed to the bill, all adults,” said the Democratic senator John Keenan, who is sponsoring the legislation.

“While everybody was out in the hallway, all aspects of the industry pointing fingers at each other and blaming each other, these kids were fighting for their generation,” said Keenan.

“It was definitely frustrating to see all these people arguing against, when they don’t really know what’s going on,” said Aaron. “We’re the ones who witness it.”

Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives also produced “talking points” for the hearing, highlighting a study which found restricting vape flavors would “cause harm to current vapers while no public health benefits would be observed in youngsters”.

Both the article’s lead author and the thinktank promoting the article have links to the tobacco and vaping industry. Consumer Advocates for Smoke Free Alternatives accepted a “one-time unrestricted donation from Altria Client Services in 2018”. The researcher, Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos of the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center in Greece, received funding from Italian e-cigarette juice companies, which produce candy and snack e-cigarette flavors.

Konstantinos also received funding from the libertarian R Street Institute thinktank. R Street received donations from Altria every year between 2014 and 2017, and testified on behalf of Philip Morris International to the US Food and Drug Administration.

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Experts in academic publishing have also questioned the journal in which the article was published, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

The University of Colorado Denver librarian Jeffrey Beall, an expert on predatory scientific journals, said the journal is “known for publishing fringe science that respected journals refuse to publish”. Such journals, he said, publish articles with, “the window dressing of a legitimate scientific journal”.

Farsalinos said that the publishing group “are not considered a predatory”, and: “I can reassure you, I’ve had papers rejected in that journal.”

The same journal published two articles by Lorillard Tobacco scientists, now a subsidiary of the Camel cigarettes maker RJ Reynolds. Both studies found there is little to no health risks associated with vaping.

But, according to Keenan, the lobbyists more than met their match in the shape of the young activists.

Keenan said he believed the industry was “shocked” at the organized, well-spoken advocacy of the Holbrook teenagers, such as Jessica, whose passion came from seeing the impact of vaping first-hand.

“We see all the kids getting addicted,” she said. “We’re on the front line.”