I started smoking when I was 15. By the time I was 16 I was addicted. It took ten years to quit, something some of my teenage friends were never able to do.
As a kid, I bought my cigarettes from a vending machine. Five quarters, pull the lever and out popped a pack of Marlboro reds. I was an angry teenager, desperate to fit in and the Marlboro ads spoke to me. Smoking was cool. It was dramatic. It was something you could do to separate yourself from losers.
Now we know the industry intentionally targeted kids – so called “replacement smokers” - because once addicted these lifelong smokers would “replace” the hundreds of thousands that died each year. And they targeted kids with gusto. The cartoon character Joe Camel helped Camel grow its share of the youth market dramatically – at one time more kids at the age of six could recognize Joe Camel than Mickey Mouse.
Way back in the 1950s tobacco companies knew nicotine is highly addictive. Yet in 1965, when the Surgeon General reported on the addictive qualities and danger of smoking, the industry responded with a PR effort that kept regulators and public health advocates at bay for decades.
So today we have e-cigarettes, loaded with nicotine and again clearly targeted at kids with flavors like pop rocks, cookies n’ cream or cotton candy to help mask the nicotine taste. The FDA calls it an epidemic and recently gave e-cigarette makers 60 days to come up with plans to reduce kid smokers – because while e-cigarettes lack the carcinogenic properties of smoking tobacco, we have no idea what impact their very high levels of nicotine may have on young brains and lungs.
And the epidemic is hitting home. Currently 12% of Vermont kids, grades 9-12, use e-cigarettes regularly and 34% have used them at least once. And once they’re addicted they’re stuck.
We need to borrow from our success in reducing tobacco use. Higher taxes and enforced age limits, combined with other public policies have cut teen smoking rates sharply. Trusting the e-cigarette makers to police themselves is folly. The lessons are clear. The Vermont Legislature should start taxing e-cigarettes immediately AND make it harder for kids to buy them.