U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro is ready to take on Big Tobacco, and she’s recruiting an army of seventh and eighth graders to help.
The Congresswoman stopped by Celentano Biotech Health and Medical Magnet School on Canner Street Tuesday to talk about the dangers of vaping to young people and announce that she will be introducing a Youth Vaping Prevention Act.
DeLauro said her bill aims to close federal tax loopholes on e-cigarettes and stop companies from marketing flavors to young people to attract a new generation of nicotine addicts. The bill also would toughen up age and identity verification for Internet sales. (Scroll to the bottom of the story for a summary of the bill’s provisions.)
On Tuesday, DeLauro asked a group of Celantano middle schoolers about what kinds of vape flavors they knew about. The students shouted out what could have easily passed for the flavors of their favorite Jolly Ranchers or Now and Later candies.
“Cotton candy,” one student said.
“Pineapple,” another added.
“That is what we call a marketing tool,” DeLauro told the students. “That’s what makes it fun. It says, ‘Hey, this is great. It’s cotton candy, gummi bears’ or whatever. It is directly a marketing tool to all of you.”
As part of the push for her bill, DeLauro is also kicking off an anti-vaping campaign in Connecticut to help the next generation of future non-smokers fight Big Tobacco, called “Don’t Get FUUL’D.”
And she’s enlisting tech-savvy youngsters like Bryan Ramirez into her army.
The Celentano eighth-grader said he doesn’t vape. But his younger nephew, who is about 10, does. Bryan has tried to get him to stop. He said he believes his nephew usually swipes the pods from his father.
Bryan, 13, said he wants to help DeLauro on her quest to get kids to stop vaping. He’s willing to commit his eighth-grade capstone project to the cause before he heads off to high school.
“My topic is tobacco and addiction already,” he said.
DeLauro said she’s going old school with a new-school vibe by reviving the success of awareness campaigns like “Kick Butts” that helped a generation of people understand the risks and dangers of smoking. She told the students that she wants to empower them to use their social media and talent for technology to reach their peers before Big Tobacco does.
Companies like JUUL say they have voluntarily pulled back their social media campaign, stopped distributing certain flavor pods to retail stores, and strengthened age verification on its site. But the damage might already be done. The number of teens vaping has skyrocketed so much that the U.S. Surgeon General has issued a public health advisory. Meanwhile, the Altria Group Inc., the parent company of Philip Morris USA, recently negotiated to purchase 35 percent of the JUUL for $12.8 billion.
Ted Kwong, JUUL Labs spokesperson, said that the company shares a common goal with federal health regulators and lawmakers: preventing young people from using nicotine.
“We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products,” he said in a statement. “We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated. As we said before, our intent was never to have youth use JUUL products. We have taken dramatic action to contribute to solving this problem, which is why we implemented the JUUL Labs Action Plan to address underage use of JUUL products.”
He said the company stopped distributing certain flavored JUULpods to retail stores Nov. 17, strengthened the age verification process on its website and eliminated its Facebook and Instagram accounts. He said the company also is working on new technology to further limit youth access and use.
“We are committed to working with lawmakers, the Surgeon General, FDA, state Attorneys General, local municipalities, and community organizations as a transparent and responsible partner in this effort,” Kwong said.
“In addition, we strongly support raising the minimum purchase age for cigarettes, tobacco and vaping products to 21. We look forward to working with lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels to achieve this end.”
DeLauro said Big Tobacco smells profit and new customers. She said she’s encouraged by any local efforts such as the push for Tobacco 21 laws to nip the popularity of the products in the bud. The law would raise the age to 21 for the purchase of tobacco products. (Read more about proposed local Tobacco 21 legislation here.)
“I think the local level is incredibly important,” she said. “The excise tax on regular cigarettes in Connecticut is $4.35 — the highest in the country where there is none on these products. Tobacco 21 is a good example and it helps us at the federal level to be able to do some things.”
Susan Peters, director of New Haven Public Schools’ 17 school health centers, said the phenomenon of young people vaping has taken off so quickly that the curriculum is behind the curve in addressing the risks for young people. She said she will work with Superintendent Carol Birks to change that.
As was the case with traditional cigarettes, the messaging of the dangers of vaping has come long after the marketing that has promoted it as a safe alternative to smoking, she said.
“For years and years, people didn’t think smoking was unsafe,” she said. “But when they heard the dangers and understood them, young people were going home to tell their mom and dad to stop smoking.”
Click the play button to watch DeLauro talk about her campaign.
Summary of Youth Vaping Prevention Act
According to a summary provided by her staff, DeLauro’s bill includes three significant proposals:
• Mandatory age verification of online sales of vapor/e-cigarette products;
• Close the current federal tax loophole for vapor/e-cigarette products; and,
• Restrict kid-friendly and addictive flavors for vapor/e-cigarette products.
1) Mandatory Age Verification of Online Sales of Vapor/E-Cigarette Products
Current law requires Internet and other mail-order sellers of cigarettes, roll-your-own, and smokeless tobacco products to:
a) verify purchasers’ age and identity before a sale through available ID databases; and,
b) use delivery methods that verify the age and ID of the person accepting delivery.
The provisions in this bill would apply these same requirements to the sale of vapor/e-cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products not currently covered under current law. Because the United States Postal Service (USPS) does not have the ability to perform age-verification at delivery, this bill essentially prevents tobacco companies from shipping e-cigarettes through the Postal Service.
2) Close the Current Federal Tax Loophole for Vapor/E-Cigarette Products (NEW)
E-cigarettes are not subject to a federal excise tax like other tobacco products are. While some states do tax e-cigarettes, this federal tax loopholes often means that e-cigarettes are cheaper than alternative tobacco products.
This bill extends the excise tax to all tobacco products covered under the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, such as e-cigarettes. The bill would also direct revenues raised from the federal tax on e-cigarettes to be allocated to the FDA’s Youth Tobacco Prevention and Education Plan.
3) Restrict Kid-Friendly and Addictive Flavors for Vapor/E-Cigarette Products (NEW)
This bill bans e-cigarette flavors unless the manufacturer can prove to FDA that their flavors meet three criteria:
(1) Help adults quit smoking cigarettes;
(2) Do not increase youth initiation of nicotine or tobacco products; and
(3) Do not increase the risk of harm to the person using the flavor.
It would also ban cigar flavorings all together since there is no public health benefit to smoking cigars.