Senators examine youth vaping epidemic, call for more enforcement over illegal products

There are new efforts underway to get e-cigarettes out of the hands of middle and high school students. More than two million teens are currently using e-cigarettes, according to the 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Josephine Shapiro from Seattle, Washington said she’s one of them.

“My first vape that I ever tried was a blueberry ice vape and I was 13 at the time,” she said.

Shapiro is now a senior at Lincoln High School. She said initially she didn’t think vaping was bad because some flavors tasted like candy.

“It’s like that motion, the flavor, the taste, that’s what you’re craving,” said Shapiro. “And so the constant rush or the flavor is what you want, you know, so it’s like, you’re hitting it maybe I don’t know 100 times a day.”

Now after years of vaping, she’s trying to quit.

“It’s really hard because it’s everywhere and like honestly, I haven’t been clean for more than two months since I decided to quit,” said Shapiro.

Wednesday, she shared her struggles with nicotine products directly with Congress during a Senate hearing about the youth vaping.

“I was already addicted, and little did I know it was about to get worse,” said Shapiro during the hearing.

She wants lawmakers to ban all flavored tobacco products.

“My friends have started with vapes, the flavored tobacco product and transformed into cigarettes and transformed into other drugs, because it’s a gateway,” she said.

Tony Abboud with the Vaping Technology Association told Congress he agrees that teens shouldn’t be using these products.

“We don’t want any kids doing this. That’s why we raised the age to 21 and we advocated for that and that’s why we’ve made this product illegal,” said Abboud. “That’s why we’ve worked hard doing the other things making more commonsense regulation to ensure these products don’t get into their hands.”

Abboud believes Congress should consider tougher restrictions for marketing.

“We can get to those concerns, we can get to access restrictions, and do things that doesn’t’ require removing all the products that adults are using,” he said.

This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Justice Department announced a new task force to target illegal sales and distribution of e-cigarettes. The task force will include officials from the US Marshals Service, US Postal Inspection Service, the Federal Trade Commission and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

But both Democrats and Republicans slammed these agencies for what they call years of inaction on the issue.

“The FDA and the Justice Department have the tools to prevent this epidemic. They have failed to use them,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D – Illinois.

“The FDA’s refusal to follow congressional intent and implement the Tobacco Control Act has led to disastrous consequences for public health and American jobs,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R – North Carolina.

Now FDA officials say it’s stepping up enforcement over illegal products.

“We participated in a landmark joint operation with Customs and Border Protection resulting in the seizure of $18 million worth of unauthorized e-cigs,” said Brian King, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.

King said the agency is also asking Congress for more support to help address a backlog in tobacco product application approvals.

“We seek authorization for FDA to collect user fees from e-cigarette manufacturers, all of whom are paying no fees, to increase collections by $114 million to account for increased workload,” said King.

With graduation on the horizon, Shapiro said she’ll continue her quitting journey.

“I want to be a doctor; I want to be successful. I want to live a full life without nicotine products,” said Shapiro.

Recently, the FDA said it has also issued more than 1,100 warnings to several distributors, manufacturers, and retailers for illegally selling unauthorized tobacco products like e-cigarettes.

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