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Snuff out e-cig marketing to kids

Walk down any street in our city and you’re sure to see them: seductive neon signs advertising the latest flavors of electronic cigarettes, the newest trend in nicotine delivery.

“VAPE,” they plead. For those of us who remember the days of Joe Camel, it’s a startling throwback to a time when cigarette advertising targeted consumers of all ages, including kids.

The dirty secret is that e-cigarette companies are exploiting a loophole in laws that ban marketing tobacco products to kids. Which is why we are urging e-cig companies to take down this dangerous marketing — and calling on the federal government to investigate and regulate the e-cigarette industry immediately.

Throughout the 20th century, government stood by as the tobacco industry hooked millions of American youth on cigarettes. That dangerous neglect ultimately cost the nation trillions of dollars in health care costs while causing endless other tobacco-related harms.

Only in 1998, years after a few enterprising elected officials finally took the fight to the cigarette makers, did the tobacco companies and 46 state attorneys general sign a settlement agreement, which imposed hundreds of billions of
dollars in fines on the industry and promised to put an end to marketing to kids.

In fact, since the tobacco settlement, young people have been exposed to a flood of powerful and savvy anti-smoking marketing to counteract the peer pressure that still drives too many of them to smoke.

The era of Joe Camel was at last over, or so we thought. However, because the MSA does not apply to e-cigarettes, the tobacco companies are now pouring millions of dollars into e-cigarette advertising, including sponsoring events, using celebrity endorsements, promoting sweet flavors like “Cherry Crush” and “Mocha Mist” — and even using cartoons to hook our kids once again.

Sadly, these efforts are working. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 70% of American youth are exposed to e-cigarette advertising, and that is contributing to a surge in their popularity. E-cigarette consumption by high school students has soared in recent years, from 1.5% in 2011 to 13.4% in 2014, and among middle school students, it has more than tripled, from 1.1% in 2011 to 3.9% in 2014.

The industry line is that e-cigs are a safe alternative to smoking. While the full health effects of these addictive products is unknown, recent studies suggest a litany of public health risks.

Just last month, research from the Harvard School of Public Health found that a flavoring chemical linked to cases of severe respiratory disease exists in more than 75% of flavored electronic cigarettes. Moreover, the research about the damaging effects of nicotine on adolescent brain development is so clear that the Centers for Disease Control has declared, “no youth should use ecigarettes.”

We need urgent action to help unhook kids who are hooked — and prevent many more kids from getting hooked in the first place. We’re calling on the Federal Trade Commission to focus its efforts on how tobacco companies are marketing e-cigarettes to the next generation. But we still need to do more.

The Food and Drug Administration recently issued final proposed rules that would classify e-cigarettes as a “tobacco product” and allow the agency to mandate warning labels on e-cigarette packaging, bar purchase by anyone under 18 years old and limit marketing to youth.

Federal investigation and regulation of e-cigarettes is long overdue, but we can’t wait for Washington to act. That’s why we’re calling on companies to voluntarily apply the restrictions on cigarette marketing outlined in the tobacco settlement agreement to e-cigarettes — now.

We cannot allow history to repeat itself. We must protect our children from the clear and present danger posed by these new nicotine delivery devices.

Stringer is the controller of the City of New York. James is the city’s public advocate.

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