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In our opinion: E-cigarette ads targeted at teens is a corrupt model

In this Tuesday, April 10, 2018 photo Marshfield High School Principal Robert Keuther displays vaping devices that were confiscated from students in such places as restrooms or hallways at the school in Marshfield, Mass. Health and education officials acr
In this Tuesday, April 10, 2018 photo Marshfield High School Principal Robert Keuther displays vaping devices that were confiscated from students in such places as restrooms or hallways at the school in Marshfield, Mass. Health and education officials across the country are raising alarms over wide underage use of e-cigarettes and other vaping products. The devices heat liquid into an inhalable vapor that's sold in sugary flavors like mango and mint, and often with the addictive drug nicotine.
Steven Senne, AP

Last weekend, significant steps were made when an investigation was opened into PAX Labs, the maker of the popular electronic cigarette Juul, to determine whether the company’s marketing was directly targeted toward teenagers.

Earlier this year, we called on the Food and Drug Administration to amp up investigations and regulations concerning electronic cigarettes — and it appears they may finally be doing so. PAX Labs denies ever purposely targeting teens, but recent reports find that 7 in 10 teens have been exposed to electronic cigarette advertising and that the devices have been the number one tobacco product among high schoolers for the last four years.

Not only is targeting the under 18 demographic with tobacco ads illegal, it's dangerous in a time when teenagers are faced with the pressures of the fear of missing out, or FOMO, a rise in anxiety and the pressure to fit in with their peers. Taking advantage of a young person’s insecurities is no way to do business.

Juuls are slim — only slightly bigger than a USB device — and are easy to conceal, which has made it attractive to teens looking to keep it in their back pocket or sneak into school. They come in a variety of vibrant colors and offer a variety of “fun” flavors like cotton candy, peanut butter, gummy bears and blue raspberry that sound innocent, but hide the amount of nicotine. In fact, the FDA reports the number one reason for teens to use the product is because of these enticing flavors. Then there’s the ads that sparked the investigation: colorful, depicting young, smiling people posing for the camera in a way that seems a little too lighthearted for an adult audience.

Since coming under scrutiny, PAX has made an effort to make over the Juul marketing. Its website has taken on a more serious tone, and models for its ads are now required to be 35 or older, not 21. It has also tried to address the attraction that comes from the fun, “harmless” flavor names by renaming things like “creme brulee” to simply “creme,” and other similar changes.

Despite this, it seems the damage has been done. More than 30 percent of teenage electronic cigarette users start smoking traditional tobacco products within six months of starting to use electronic versions. And 60 percent of teenagers who use electronic cigarettes claim they only use flavoring without nicotine, but because manufacturers aren’t required to disclose ingredients, nobody really knows what is included.

The stated mission of Juul is to reduce traditional cigarette use by selling e-cigarettes, but targeting a vulnerable demographic with the potential to become “lifelong customers” is a corrupt way of doing business. Not only does it put the rising generation at risk, but it reverses all the progress seen in ending tobacco addiction in recent decades. As harmless or fun as they may seem, electronic cigarettes have not been proven to be an entirely safe option.

Although progress has been made, we remind parents and educators that they have the opportunity to talk with youths about the dangers of electronic smoking and the very permanent effects that nicotine can have on a young, developing brain. Decades of preventing teen smoking and tobacco addiction are at risk with the popularity of vaping and electronic cigarettes.

There is enough evidence available to be wary of electronic cigarettes, and this isn’t the 1950s: Instead of waiting for further action or regulation from the FDA, the time to take preventative measures to keep teens safe is now, not later.