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Washington Should Fight Teen Smoking at the Source

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Steven Senne

Late last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced they were moving to ban flavored e-cigarettes from convenience stores, in an attempt to turn the rising tide of e-cigarette use by teens. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb even said, “Our aim is to make sure no kid can access a fruity flavor product in a convenience store.” 

What Mr. Gottlieb failed to mention is that most teens get e-cigarettes from someone else, at “adult only” businesses, or they buy them online. Unfortunately, the FDA addressed none of these methods in their guidelines, and instead are targeting what amounts to 2% of the way teens get e-cigarettes.

The latest and best data available on how adolescents get their e-cigarettes and other vaping devices shows that the majority of teens get their e-cigarettes from legal adults. 35.8% of teens purchased their e-cigarettes from a non-retail source, like a friend. 14.3% reported receiving the e-cigarette as a gift. And sadly, nearly 5% of minors say they got their e-cigarette from their parents.

This means that more teens got their e-cigarette product from their parents than purchased them at a convenience store.

While we can all agree that teen smoking is a public health concern, unelected bureaucrats should not unfairly target private businesses who have proven time and again they are better at enforcing age-restrictions than the stores that are “adult only,” like vape and tobacco shops.

The study, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, showed that of the teens who purchased their e-cigarette product from a retail location, 16.4% purchased the products from a tobacco specialty store and 22.3% purchased it from a vape shop. These numbers are three and four times the figure associated with convenience stores, despite tobacco and vape shops being “adult only.” Yet these are the same places the FDA’s regulation would allow to continue selling fruity flavors targeted towards teens.

If the FDA is serious about combatting teen smoking, which they should be, they need to prioritize enforcement on the ways teens actually acquire e-cigarettes.

When studying the retail purchase of e-cigarettes by teens, it becomes clear that online retailers are a significant contributor to teen vaping. 32.2% of teens who bought their own e-cigarette bought it online, more than any other retail source. The increasingly tech-savvy generation can easily outwit the age verification measures online, which often ask the buyer to input their birthday, check a box to confirm they are over the legal age, and… that’s it.

The issue of online sales to minors is likely exacerbated by the lack of a physical ID check requirement when delivering e-cigarette products. As it stands, a teen who buys an e-cigarette online can have it delivered and dropped off at their doorstep just like any other package, an obvious legal oversight given that traditional cigarettes require an ID check upon delivery.

Thankfully, senators and representatives have recently introduced a bi-partisan bills that will update the law regarding tobacco deliveries to include the same restrictions on e-cigarettes that exist for traditional cigarettes. This commonsense legislation, called the Preventing Online Sales of E-Cigarettes to Children Act, will treat online retailers more like convenience stores, who are required to check an ID every time before handing over e-cigarettes and are nearly six times less likely to sell e-cigarettes to minors. This bill has been introduced in both the House and the Senate, indicating widespread support for this solution. Hopefully Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, given his recent support for increasing the legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21, will support this bill and help it move through the Senate quickly.

We must work together to prevent teens from becoming addicted to nicotine products that are dangerous for their health, and the government has a role to play in protecting the next generation. But if the government is going to enact rules and regulations to combat teen vaping, they should at the very least use scientific data to target the source of the problem, not waste tax dollars hunting law-abiding private companies who are doing the right thing. Bills like the Preventing Online Sales of E-Cigarettes to Children Act would move us in the right direction, and I hope leaders of both parties will come together and support this commonsense solution. 

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