I want to share a story of a typical Maine family: Mom, dad and two well-rounded kids, both athletes and good students. Both kids learn in elementary school about the dangers of tobacco use, their parents are confident they will never light up a cigarette. The son is vice president of his high school class and a member of the National Honor Society, heading off to college to achieve his goal of playing Division II collegiate soccer.
All seemed to be going well. However, the elementary school lessons and parents’ efforts are no match for big tobacco. That standout soccer player, a civic-minded, thoughtful young man, falls prey to the tobacco industry’s targeting. He is my son, and he became addicted to e-cigarettes when he was 17. He says he started using because it felt like everyone was doing it, and if he didn’t, it would seem strange.
When I first tried to help my son quit, I found little information readily available to counter the messages he and his friends had been led to believe by the industry. I wanted to make sure he and his friends knew that most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, a highly addictive drug that puts kids at greater risk for a lifelong addiction. I was surprised to learn that the state had done little to educate Maine parents and children about the harms of these dangerous products.
I took my story to the State House, where lawmakers were considering tobacco control policies including an increase in Maine’s tobacco tax and increased funding for our tobacco control programs. I found myself outnumbered in a hearing, with a room full tobacco industry lobbyists and others who make money from the sale of tobacco products. They were doing everything to take the attention away from them and the millions of dollars more than $48 million every year in Maine alone — they spend on marketing, including deceptive tactics to attract new users like my son.
After witnessing this public hearing, I have one question for our lawmakers: Why would we listen to the industry responsible for addicting millions of Americans to tobacco products to come up with the solutions to solve the problem they created? Why would we trust anything the tobacco industry says?
Polling released last week by the Maine Public Health Association showed that, like me, more than 70 percent of Mainers are concerned about the tobacco industry’s use of candy and fruit flavors that make their products more appealing to kids. Like me, two-thirds of Mainers are concerned about youth use of e-cigarettes and 85 percent of Mainers believe it is important to prevent youth from using any form of tobacco product. And, like me, more than three-quarters of Mainers believe the state is not spending enough on tobacco control.
The U.S. surgeon general has declared e-cigarette use an epidemic among our youth and has encouraged parents, teachers and lawmakers to take action. This next generation is becoming addicted to nicotine for life, and they are seeing the health effects.
I know that nicotine has changed my son’s developing brain, and I’m worried. My son was misled by an industry seeking him as a replacement tobacco user. He has worked so hard and I’m sad to see this addiction taking over his life.
I am angry at this industry that is trying to blame me instead of being held accountable for the problem they created. The public health risks associated with allowing the current status quo of youth tobacco use to continue are simply unacceptable and will become a major burden on the health of our state for years to come if lawmakers do not take action now.
I urge Maine’s Legislature and governor to implement proven policy solutions like increasing tobacco taxes and fully funding the state tobacco control program.
Mary Lou Warn is a mother of two from Winslow. She is a volunteer with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.