Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.
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In the last decades of the 20th century, society waged a political and cultural war to keep young people away from the health risks of tobacco. Today, a similar battle is underway against the next generation of smokers to discourage the use of battery powered e-cigarettes.
“From the standpoint of a public health purist, I am reminded of the Hollywood thriller films, like “Friday the 13th”, where the evil Jason appears in series after series despite efforts to put him away,” said Robert Ross, president of The California Endowment. “Vaping is yet another, more creatively evil form of the nation’s adolescent smoking crisis – which California successfully confronted the tobacco industry about over the past couple of decades.”
Health Access California Executive Director Anthony Wright summed up both the historical echo of the previous fight and the looming challenge.
“The huge drop in smoking rates is one of California’s greatest public health achievements of the last half century – a victory vaping threatens to undo,” Wright said. “Tobacco control laws and public health campaigns were key to this marked reduction, and will be vital again to address the vaping crisis.”
Joseph Alvarnas of the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center sees an opportunity to improve on those previous accomplishments.
“We are finally seeing smoking-related cancer and mortality rates decrease based upon the success of public health efforts that began 50 years ago,” Alvarnas said. “With the vaping crisis, we have a chance to get this right without sustaining the loss of life and suffering that we have seen in the past with cigarette smoking.”
State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) refuted the argument that vaping can be a helpful tool for smokers trying to quit their habit.
“While e-cigarette manufacturers have touted e-cigs as smoking cessation devices and safer than cigarettes, they have not submitted their products to the FDA for approval,” Pan said. “In fact, vaping products often contain higher doses of highly addictive nicotine than combustible cigarettes, and vaping is a gateway to initiating cigarette use by teens.”
Several Influencers offered a range of strategies to reduce the use of e-cigarettes by teenagers, citing similar programs that discouraged tobacco use in previous eras.
“In the nineties, when children were able to identify Joe Camel as quickly as they could the Disney logo, the jig was up on the idea that the tobacco industry was marketing their product to children,” said Robin Swanson of Sacramento’s Swanson Communications. “If we want to confront the spread of vaping among young people, we need to start by intercepting the ads, social media and concert promotions that attempt to market this dangerous product as ‘cool.’”
Sierra Health Foundation President Chet Hewitt agreed with the need for enhanced communications efforts, but urged anti-vaping marketing programs to integrate teenagers into the messaging process to increase credibility with the target audience.
“Young people don’t like anyone to make decisions for them; let’s use that newfound independence to push back against the obfuscation,” Said Hewitt. “We must allow young people to lead the way and work with them to craft messages and use delivery mechanisms such as social media that they find relevant.
California Medical Association CEO Dustin Corcoran pointed to the impact of higher taxes on cigarettes and recommended the same approach on vaping products as a similar deterrent.
“We know that tobacco taxes are the most effective way to reduce tobacco use, and that kids in particular are sensitive to price point,” Corcoran said. “By simply taxing vaping products the same way we tax cigarettes, we can make it harder for kids to get access to these dangerous products which have hooked a new generation of young users.”
Other Influencers called for stronger penalties against those who sell or market e-cigarettes to minors.
“There’s a bipartisan effort in the Capitol to increase penalties for retailers who sell to minors and prohibit e-cig manufacturers from advertising to children,” said Assemblywoman Marie Waldron (R-Escondido). “Ensuring that law enforcement has the tools to crack down on illegal sales and educating children, parents and school employees about vaping will help ease the epidemic and save lives.”
Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend called for a more sweeping pushback, citing his board’s unanimous vote to ban flavored tobacco and electronic cigarettes.
“The best way to cut down on youth vaping rates is to significantly reduce access,” Friend said. “We’ve made great strides in reducing smoking rates but vaping presents a new challenge… reducing access through local or state bans is an important step.”