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Guest opinion: Taking action against tobacco

In this April 23, 2014 file photo, E-cigarettes appear on display at Vape store in Chicago.
Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press

As a pediatric emergency medicine physician, I want to do everything I can to prevent my young patients from using tobacco products. That’s why I was especially grateful that Utah’s own Rep. Chris Stewart voted in May to protect the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s authority to oversee all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes.

Strong FDA oversight of all tobacco products is critical to prevent these products from hooking a new generation of children and undermining the tremendous progress we have made in reducing youth tobacco use. Tobacco is the most common addictive product used by the patients I see, and this problem will only worsen as new, poorly regulated flavored tobacco products and delivery devices are introduced.

New data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey showed that for the fourth year in a row, e-cigarettes are the most commonly used tobacco products among U.S. high schoolers. In 2017, 11.7 percent of high schoolers nationwide used these products compared to 7.6 percent who smoked traditional cigarettes. Also troubling is the finding that cigars are slightly more popular than cigarettes among high school students (7.7 percent to 7.6 percent), and especially popular among high school boys (9 percent report cigar use). Here in Utah, high school students use e-cigarettes at twice the rate of cigarettes (7.6 percent use e-cigarettes compared to 3.8 percent who smoke cigarettes).

The popularity of e-cigarettes and cigars isn’t a fluke — tobacco companies are employing tried and true strategies to attract young people. They sell these products in sweet, kid-friendly flavors like gummy bear, very berry slushie and peanut butter cup. These flavors sound more like candy than tobacco products — and that is exactly why they are enticing children. These products are also dangerous to very young children who are attracted to the candy-like scent and colorful packaging and can easily swallow enough of the tobacco product to die from nicotine poisoning.

An FDA study found that youths cite flavors as a major reason for their current use of non-cigarette tobacco products, with 81 percent of youth e-cigarette users and 74 percent of youth cigar users saying they used the product "because they come in flavors I like."

Despite their fun flavors, tobacco products are not safe, especially for youths. A 2016 U.S. Surgeon General report concluded that exposure to nicotine in any form, including in e-cigarettes, can cause addiction and harm development of the young brain, disrupting attention and interfering with learning.

In 2016, the FDA issued new rules to protect children from e-cigarettes and cigars. But tobacco companies have been working ever since to get Congress to roll back these rules.

Rep. Stewart recognizes that strong FDA oversight of tobacco products is critical to protecting child health. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he recently voted against an amendment to the FDA funding bill that completely spares some cigars from FDA oversight, eliminates the need for FDA scientific review for other cigars, and makes it easier for tobacco companies to create and sell new, candy-flavored tobacco products that appeal to children.

Although the committee ultimately approved the bill with this harmful amendment, health advocates like me appreciate that Rep. Stewart stood up and spoke out for what is right. We look forward to working with him to make sure this harmful proposal doesn’t become law.

As a parent and pediatrician, I am grateful that Rep. Stewart takes seriously his responsibility to protect children in Utah and supports strong FDA oversight of all tobacco products.