Benjamin M. Gies

Opinion Submission: New FDA chief must ban Juul

New FDA Chief: Ban Juul

By Benjamin M. Gies

Benjamin M. Gies is the director of early childhood policy and practice at the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. He previously served on the Jefferson County Board of Education.

For the first time in more than a year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) got a permanent leader when Dr. Robert Califf was sworn in last month. He comes into office with a long—and critically important—to do list. At the top of that list should be keeping harmful vaping products away from our kids and off the market.

The FDA is currently six months past its deadline for evaluating the dangerous effects of vapes and e-cigarettes. It’s critical for students in Kentucky and across the country that Dr. Califf quickly ban companies like Juul that have a record of preying on middle and high school students.

Taking concrete steps to save lives can’t come soon enough.

Kentucky still has one of the highest smoking rates in the nation. Our rates of cancer are tragic and show little sign of improvement. Each year, nearly 9,000 Kentucky adults die from tobacco use.

The advent of vaping products took this problem and made it a whole lot worse. Even with new laws at the state and federal level that have raised the tobacco purchase age to 21, young people are getting hooked on vaping products and setting themselves up for a lifetime of addiction and health challenges.

Last year’s National Youth Tobacco Survey showed over 40% of current high schoolers who vape used a device on at least 20 of the last 30 days. Kentucky leads every other state surveyed in the number of middle schoolers who report using tobacco. These nicotine-packed products alter a child’s brain chemistry and set them up for a lifetime of dependence and the chronic health consequences that come with it.

Parents have watched their children as young as 10 start down this dangerous path and wondered how to stop it. As educators, advocates and citizens, we know more must be done.

Sadly, we’re also finding the high rates of vaping among middle and high school students aren’t an unintended consequence. For some, it was the goal.

When vaping producers like Juul came under fire for their youth-targeting flavored products, they turned to multi-billion-dollar consulting giants like McKinsey and Company. That firm advised Juul how to revamp its product line with innocuous-sounding flavors that will still get children hooked.

Instead of fruit pods, Juul sold mint flavors. The effect was the same—more kids vaping and getting addicted to dangerous nicotine.

It's no secret that nearly 90 percent of current adult smokers got their first hit of nicotine before age 18. Companies know that if they don’t get someone hooked by age 26, they’re unlikely to ever become a reliable customer.

The decision to target teens is an effort to pad a company’s bottom line, regardless of the very real human cost. The FDA must crack down on the vaping companies and their advisors, like McKinsey, who made this possible.

Those of us in Kentucky may remember the name “McKinsey” for the multi-million settlement it paid last year from when it helped “turbocharge” the opioid epidemic. There are too many outstanding questions about how McKinsey has profited off our pain. Until they’re answered, we must remain on high alert.

Kentucky students have faced so many challenges over recent years. At the Prichard Committee, we work every day to promote policies that will advance their education and help set them on a course for a fulfilling life. The FDA must support these young people and restrict products deliberately designed to harm them.

Unfortunately, the FDA has dragged its feet for months on its regulation efforts. When the stakes are this high, our nation’s health policy organizations can’t take their eye off the ball, and Dr. Califf can lead the charge to ban Juul’s vaping products and hold accountable firms like McKinsey that put short-term profits ahead of the consequences for real people.

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