The media has been flooded with stories of teens and young adults becoming ill due to using flavored e-cigarettes. But nobody is talking about the impact on the black community.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 67 percent of cases of the mysterious lung disease associated with vaping and e-cigarettes were among young adults, and 16 percent were among youth younger than 18. What has been referred to as the youth vaping epidemic has so far resulted in seven deaths and hundreds of illnesses across 36 states.
We don’t have any exact numbers on the impact on black teens and adolescents, but we know they are at risk. And we know companies like Juul, the leading e-cigarette manufacturer, are aggressively marketing them in communities of color. Juul Labs, founded in 2015, became the most popular e-cigarette in America in two years. By 2018, Juul represented 72 percent of the e-cigarette market. Roughly 3 out of every 4 e-cigarettes sold today is a Juul.
Further research shows young people are the biggest customers. A 2018 study of 15- to-34-year-olds published in BMJ Tobacco Control found those younger than 21 were more likely to use Juul regularly than their older counterparts. They have stolen a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook to get our kids hooked. Since black teens have been a big target for cigarettes, we, as parents, advocates and community members must pay attention to their marketing tactics. And we must use our voices in action if we are going to protect our children.
Though e-cigarette manufacturers claim to aim their products at adult cigarette smokers, Juul’s marketing has seemed youth focused. With sweet flavors such as watermelon, strawberry milk and mango, teens are drawn to the taste and the fact that the fruity scent conceals their use with parents and at school, where e-cigarette use is frequently banned.
This is especially insidious because many young people believe vaping is a safe alternative to smoking cigarettes. It’s not. There are hundreds of different vape products on the market containing a stew of toxic ingredients, including cancer-causing chemicals, THC (the active ingredient in marijuana), vegetable glycerin, flavorings and nicotine. In fact, each Juul pod has as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nicotine is as addictive as heroin and has known adverse effects on the heart, hormones, gastrointestinal system and brain development.
After a 2018 FDA report showed a 78 percent jump in e-cigarette use among high school students and 48 percent among middle schoolers—and the recent spate of deaths—the current administration proposed a ban on all flavored e-cigarette products. Michigan became the first state to ban them as a public health risk for our kids.
Those of us who advocate for our black children and teens are saying, “Here we go again— another effort to increase the industry bottom line by enticing our youth into something harmful.”
We need to have real conversations about what e-cigarettes are doing to our community.
What can you do?
- Make your voice heard. This is an issue that must be addressed at the federal, state and local levels—in communities and neighborhoods. Write letters, make phone calls and attend meetings. Protect our kids.
- Be aware of what’s going on with e-cigarettes and what to look for to know if your child is using them.
- Educate your kids on the risks so they can make wise and healthy decisions that won’t put them at risk.
- Lead by example. While the medical community is studying the impact of e-cigarettes on adults as well as youth, be proactive about not using them. And if you are smoking cigarettes and are trying to stop, look at the many smoking cessation tools available to you besides the e-cigarette.
Linda Goler Blount is the president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative.