On February 28, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation H.R. 2339 to prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol and electronic cigarettes.
The bill, "Protecting American Lungs and Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2020," addresses the staggering increase in teenage vaping. According to the 2019 national youth tobacco survey, more than 5.3 million kids now use e-cigarettes; 97 percent of which use at least one flavored product.
"The tobacco industry hooks our kids with enticing flavors, from mango to cotton candy," said Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson, a Florida advocate for the bill and founder of 5,000 Role Models of Excellence.
“The surge in youth vaping is partially fueled by peer pressure and that alone supersedes what is taught at home and schools. Kids see nothing wrong with vaping, and because it's odorless and parents aren't aware of their use," Wilson added.
Leading Black organizations supported the initiative including 39 out of 50 members of the congressional Black caucus. The NAACP, the National Medical Association and Black Women’s Health Imperative also upheld the measure.
But because menthol is a popular choice amongst Blacks, the proposal caused a stir amongst some civil rights groups and Black lawmakers, who feared the banning could lead to their communities facing law enforcement abuse and over-policing.
"That was another idea fueled by the tobacco industry," noted Wilson.
"The ban is on selling, not using; the measure includes strong safeguards against stopping-and-frisking."
In December 2019, Congress banned the sale of tobacco and e-cigarettes to those under 21 in order to deter teenage use.
"Underage kids can't get it from retail stores, but they are clever on finding other ways," said Dr. Lisa Gwynn, associate professor of Clinical Pediatrics and Public Health Sciences at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine. Gwynn, too, serves as medical director for the Pediatric Mobile Clinic, a program that provides a medical home to uninsured children, as well as program director for the school health initiative and nine pediatric clinics in Miami-Dade County schools.
"Some mix the e-cigarettes with other compounds from vaping stores and make it even more toxic"
The legislation also targets flavors in regular cigarettes, including menthol, which goes beyond the partial ban on the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes announced by President Trump in January.
"Menthol opens up your vessels more, increasing the absorption of the nicotine. It also masks the taste and harshest of the smoke with its cooling effect," Dr. Gwynn explained.
"With kids and teenagers, their brains are still developing and they quickly become addicted. Vaping too provides a quick nicotine rush - one pod from a jewel box is equivalent to a full package of cigarettes."
Related statistics are especially alarming for Black smokers. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than seven out of ten African American youth ages 12-17 years who smoke use menthol cigarettes. Nicotine is linked to high-blood pressure, and research by the American Heart Association
has shown that smoke doubles the risk of stroke among African Americans.
The state of Massachusetts already banned the sale of all flavored products, but Wilson said that approving it on a national level is still an uphill battle. The measure has to be taken up by the Senate before the president signs it into law.
"This has been a conversation for a couple of years and it started with us approaching the tobacco industry directly as to their advertising," Wilson said.
"Getting through the House was a victory. But now with the country busy with the coronavirus pandemic, census and primary elections, it's hard to say when the Senate will look at it."
As for users turning to regular cigarettes and elicit markets in the face of the prohibition, Dr. Gwynn was adamant. "Kids who are already addicted will most likely find other ways to deal with their cravings, but we have to start somewhere. This legislation will help future generations if not this one."
Dr. Gwynn, who has seen patients as young as 17 suffering from a lung-related disease is keeping her hopes up.
"There's nothing negative about this, it is all about protecting public health, who can argue with that? Hopefully, senators will put kids first."