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EDITORIAL: Flavored tobacco created an epidemic of youth addiction. California must ban it

Sacramento Bee - 1/17/2020

Jan. 17--The California State Legislature revealed a cowardly streak last year when key leaders allowed tobacco industry money to kill legislation designed to end the youth vaping epidemic. The Democratic-controlled body's rare refusal to take a bold stand allowed President Donald Trump to step up and declare his intention to snuff out flavored tobacco, which has sucked millions of schoolchildren into the vortex of nicotine addiction.

Trump threatened to ban all flavored vaping products, but then retreated. Earlier this month, he announced a temporary ban on some flavors and certain vaping devices.

On the bright side: Trump's wimp-out gives California another chance to stand up to Big Tobacco and protect public health. In 2020, California's bill to ban all flavored tobacco products is back. Senate Bill 793 by Senator Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would ban all flavored tobacco products. It has a powerful supporter: Gov. Gavin Newsom, who apparently stood on the sidelines last year as nicotine lobbyists and their servants in the Legislature killed all threats to their child-targeting strategy.

Newsom now seems fully awake to the threat. He expressed support for SB 793 while unveiling the state budget, which proposes a new vaping tax.

"It scares the hell out of me as a parent, hearing what I am hearing -- what is happening in middle schools, not just high schools -- and I think this vaping tax is long overdue," said Newsom.

What's happening in schools is a full-blown epidemic of childhood nicotine addiction driven by slick technology, youth-oriented marketing and candy flavors like cheesecake, grape, mint and "unicorn vomit."

For years, the vaping industry and its defenders downplayed the products' appeal to kids and insisted the products were intended for adults. Then the wave of youth vaping became a tsunami, making the youth nicotine addiction epidemic undeniable.

"The number of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes rose from 3.6 million in 2018 to 5.4 million in 2019 -- a difference of about 1.8 million youth," according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The rise of vaping among teens has had a dramatic impact in schools nationwide, including in Sacramento. Officials from Rio Americano High School told ABC 10 that the number of students in busted for vaping "increased by roughly 45 percent from the 2017-2018 school year to the 2018-2019 school year." The problem became so severe that parents, teachers and students formed a group called the Anti-Vaping Alliance.

"It's taking away from administrative time," Anne Del Core, a Rio Americana parent, told ABC 10. "It's taking away from teachers' time. It's cutting instructional minutes when the fire alarms go off."

"Over five million of our students are now addicted to nicotine and vaping," said Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, a vocal proponent of SB 793. "I think there's been a real evolution of the conversation around this."

Vaping's popularity among teens is not entirely accidental. While companies like San Francisco-based Juul spent years denying accusations that they targeted young people, a recent New York Times investigation exposed the ugly truth: "From the beginning, there was plenty of evidence of teenage use on social media that should have been apparent to a company that had made social media the core of its marketing strategy. A sampling of tweets from Juul's first 18 months of sales showed that juuling had quickly become a fad among high school students, long before the company acknowledged that there was a problem."

The story, featuring testimony from former Juul employees, revealed that Juul knew vaping had quickly become trendy with kids. But instead of trying to counteract youth addiction, Juul pushed ahead with glamorous marketing campaigns focused on young people. While publicly posing as a company dedicated to helping people quit cigarettes, Juul worked feverishly to increase nicotine addiction.

"We don't think a lot about addiction here because we're not trying to design a cessation product at all," one Juul engineer told The Verge in 2015. In October, the company pulled most of its flavored products from the market.

Candy flavors, along with the sleek technological designs of vaping devices like the Juul, appeal to kids. But the main attraction is chemical. Nicotine salts deliver a powerful dose of stimulant to the brain. Addiction happens quickly, especially in young brains. Nicotine can affect brain development and create a lifelong nicotine habit.

That's why California must crush the tobacco industry's youth addiction playbook. To do so, however, the State Legislature must overcome some legislators' addiction to tobacco industry money. For example, last year Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, used his position as chair of the Governmental Organization Committee to scuttle anti-vaping legislation while taking tens of thousands of dollars from Juul.

This year must be different. With both the governor and the lieutenant governor vocally supporting SB 793, this year's showdown over flavored tobacco will reveal who really wields the power in the State Capitol: those who seek to protect California's children from Big Tobacco's strategies, or those who would sell our children into a lifetime of addiction in exchange for easy money.

It's time for California's leaders to pick a side.

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