High school students who gathered in downtown Los Angeles this week sang "Fight the flavor" as they showed their support for a ban on flavored tobacco products that health experts say are fueling a nicotine addiction epidemic among young.
Protesters included 16-year-old Jennyfer Cortez, who said she first tried an electronic cigarette five years ago because it tasted like blueberry, her favorite fruit. She didn't like to throw up because it made her cough, but she saw her classmates vape in lockers, in the school bathroom, and sometimes even in the classroom.
"These kids are so addicted to nicotine that they can't go to class without being vaped," said Cortez, a junior at Jackie Robinson Charter High School in southern Los Angeles.
Governments across the country are considering banning tobacco-flavored products amid growing use of electronic cigarettes among young people and a mysterious outbreak of serious lung disease that appears to be linked to vaping. Legislative efforts would eliminate the fruity pods of electronic cigarettes with flavors like mango, strawberry and mint, which public health experts say are supporting nicotine among young people.
Many of the regulations, including what is being considered by Los Angeles County authorities that drew protesters to downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday, would also ban menthol cigarettes. Public health experts say the marketing and sustained popularity of menthol cigarettes provide a window into the manual that e-cigarette companies could be using when it comes to selling nicotine-flavored products.
Menthol cigarettes, which were invented in the 1920s, were promoted as healthier than regular cigarettes, although they are more dangerous, experts say.
Aggressive marketing of menthol cigarettes for African Americans has worked – approximately 85% of African American smokers now prefer menthol, said Phillip Gardiner, a researcher at the University of California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program.
In the last century, attempts to ban menthol have failed due to the lobbying of the tobacco industry and the ubiquity of cigarettes, experts say. The Trump government announced a proposal last year to get them off the market, but the effort seems to have stalled.
"Menthol is the best candy flavor – it helps the poison to fall more easily," Gardiner said.
Young people are trying out flavored electronic cigarettes; From 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette use among high school students increased by 78%, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Electronic cigarette devices work by heating a liquid cartridge containing nicotine and perhaps an additional flavor and turning it into vapor that the user can inhale.
This month, Michigan became the first state in the nation to ban flavored electronic cigarettes. The Trump government said this month it is also considering banning the products.
Concerns about flavored tobacco products reflect those of menthol cigarettes, which are flavored with mint extract and have been the gateway to addiction for nearly a century, experts say.
“Tobacco companies have known this for a long time…. Nicotine itself is really bitter, it doesn't taste good, ”said Thomas Ylioja, a tobacco cessation specialist at National Jewish Health, a research hospital in Denver. "As a former young smoker, menthol was how I started."
Legend has it that in 1925, a man named Lloyd "Spud" Hughes placed his tobacco in a can of baking powder along with menthol crystals, which he was using to treat a cold. The next day, he rolled the tobacco and accidentally created a menthol cigarette.
In the following decades, many companies began selling menthol, marketing them as a less severe alternative to traditional cigarettes.
Tobacco executives noticed a slight preference for menthol among African Americans and began targeting them with publicity. Popular menthol brand Kool hired Elston Howard, an African-American New York Yankees catcher, as a spokesman, and cigarette companies bought ads in Ebony magazine. Predictably, the percentage of black men smoking menthol soared, according to one paper Gardiner wrote detailing what he calls "African American Americanization of Menthol Cigarette Smoking."
"Unfortunately, the efforts of the tobacco industry have been very successful," Gardiner said in an interview.
Menthol not only improves the taste of tobacco, it also numbs the throat so people can smoke more cigarettes, he said. Worse, menthol allows for a deeper inhalation of smoke, which leaves more nicotine in the body, which makes people more addicted, he said.
In 2009, a federal law banned many flavored cigarettes such as chocolate and vanilla, but not menthol. Menthol's long-term success has paved the way for flavored electronic cigarettes, said Bill Novelli, former president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Children.
"It seems pretty clear that these flavors were basically designed to seduce and lure kids into smoking," he said.
The results of a survey conducted by American Heart Assn. Of the 1,500 adult e-cigarette users published this month, they found that nearly one-third of adults using e-cigarettes said the main reason they started was because of the flavors. This percentage was even higher among young adults, according to the survey.
"The taste of these nicotine products appeals to younger people when they are more likely to become addicted if they try it," said Dr. Jessica Sims of American Heart Assn.
However, those who oppose the ban on flavored electronic cigarettes say they offer a way for smokers to switch to a safer alternative. Experts agree that despite the risks of electronic cigarettes, they remain less dangerous than traditional cigarettes.
At the rally outside the L.A County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, people shouted "Save our vapes" about high school students.
Alan Ngo, 32, was holding a sign that said, "I vote, I smoke." Four years ago, he went from smoking to steaming, the only thing that helped him quit smoking, he said. He said your lungs are better than before. He can run farther and cough less, he said.
"I think flavors save lives," said Ngo, who lives in Rosemead.
At Tuesday's meeting, county supervisors promoted a ban on flavored tobacco, which would make illegal not only fruity pods of liquid nicotine and traditional menthol cigarettes, but also mint chewing tobacco and cream cigars, among others. products. The ban will only affect non-corporate areas, which include about 1 million people.
Also on Tuesday, Kevin Burns, chief executive of electronic cigarette giant Juul, left office. His replacement, K.C. Crosthwaite said the company would suspend all advertising in the United States and would refrain from pressuring the Trump government over the proposed ban on flavored electronic cigarette products.
In a statement, Crosthwaite acknowledged that the company should work with policymakers and regulators because its "future is at risk due to unacceptable levels of youth use and the erosion of public trust in our industry."