Credit: George Danby

Vaping will soon be banned on school grounds across Maine, but there’s more work to do to protect kids from a long, hard struggle with nicotine addiction.

Recent reports of pulmonary illness, seizures and jaw-shattering battery explosions just reinforce how unsafe youth vaping is at its core. To begin with, most of the products, especially those sold by Juul, contain high amounts of nicotine, a drug that can alter the developing brain, contribute to mood disorders, and increase the risk of addiction to other dangerous substances among adolescents. Research shows that young vapers are three times more likely to start smoking combustible cigarettes.

According to the 2017 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, 15 percent of high schoolers in Maine reported using an e-cigarette in the previous 30 days. That number has likely increased along with the national trend — vaping skyrocketed among high schoolers by a staggering 78 percent last year, with one in five students using e-cigarettes. Even more concerning, many of the young people now hooked on vaping had never smoked before, and likely never would have used any tobacco product if it weren’t for e-cigarettes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that the massive uptick in vaping among America’s youth has erased years of progress in reducing tobacco use among young people, and the Surgeon General declared it an epidemic.

E-cigarette companies operate with a Wild West mentality. That’s because the Food and Drug Administration has failed to properly review and regulate the products. Thanks to a lawsuit from leading health groups, a judge ruled recently that the FDA needs to speed up its timeline for reviewing the public health risks of e-cigarettes. However, the new deadline for e-cigarette companies to submit applications isn’t until May 2020 and products can stay on the market for up to a year while being reviewed. Leaving e-cigarettes on the market without the proper review for nearly two more years could mean that millions more kids get hooked.

E-cigarette companies have used the old tobacco companies’ playbook to ensnare a new generation of nicotine addicts. That includes youth-oriented advertising that presents vaping as social and attractive, as well as offering a variety of flavors that appeal to kids, including mango, mint and watermelon.

Brian King from the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health said it best last year: “Advertising can bring the horse to water. The flavors will get them to drink. And the nicotine will keep them coming back for more.” According to the FDA’s own analysis, 70 percent of current youth e-cigarette users use the products because they come in flavors they like — there are more than 15,000 flavors on the market. Even though nearly all e-cigarettes contain nicotine, more than half of Maine youth think the product is “just flavoring.”

While the FDA is lagging in its response to vaping, states and local governments are stepping up. In addition to prohibiting vaping on school grounds in Maine, state lawmakers also passed legislation last session to equalize the tax on all tobacco products so that e-cigarettes are taxed according to the same standard as cigarettes. That’s a major step forward in reducing the access of these products to young people.

For the sake of Maine’s youth, we can’t let history repeat itself when it comes to nicotine use. The decisions that we and our elected officials make in the next several years will determine whether the tobacco industry hooks a new generation of kids on dangerous and addictive products. Maine lawmakers need to strike a meaningful blow to reduce youth appeal to e-cigarettes, and that means prohibiting all flavored tobacco products, including mint and menthol.

Matthew Wellington is the End the Nicotine Trap Campaign Director for U.S. PIRG in Portland.