Teenage e-cigarette use is ‘an unrecognized epidemic,’ Boston city councilor says

"This product is spreading faster than any analysis of how it is harming our young people."

–The Associated Press

City Councilor Matt O’Malley knows firsthand how hard it is to quit smoking.

It’s part of the reason he’s demanding Boston officials take further action to curb the chances a new generation will pick up a nicotine addiction, he told fellow councilors Wednesday.

Calling the sharp rise of e-cigarette use among teenagers “an unrecognized epidemic,” O’Malley requested a hearing to delve into the particulars of just how much a so-called “vaping” habit has harmed Boston’s young people — and what exactly can be done to stop it.

“This is a problem that is spreading across our city,” said Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, a co-sponsor of the request and a former high school teacher. “I’ve heard incidents where kids are hiding them in the classroom because there is very little smoke. There is no odor. This is a serious concern and something that we can’t let get too far out of hand.”

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In Massachusetts, nearly a quarter of all high school students reported using an e-cigarette in the past 30 days, according to the most recent state data compiled in 2015. Nearly half of high school students have tried it at least once, the numbers show.

Advocates and health experts contend the technology, which manufacturers say is intended to help adults quit smoking tobacco, contributes to a reversal in a decades-long decline in adolescent smoking.

More teens are becoming addicted to nicotine, which can have negative effects on developing brains and can trigger mood disorders, depression, and anxiety, doctors say.

While the Boston Public Health Commission has cracked down on underage sales in corner stores and smoke shops, online sales for e-cigarette makers have flourished and many minors are already addicted, O’Malley said.

He wants to gather the city’s health and school leaders together to talk about new approaches and to map out just how intensely the problem has grown, he said.

“I’m concerned that new nicotine delivery systems like JUUL and other e-cigarettes have spread among young people faster than our culture and our government can adapt,” O’Malley said.

Although he did not commit to any particular response, he said Boston should consider “a variety of strategies,” including banning flavored e-cigarette products, following suit with other cities across the country.

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In 2018, Somerville passed regulations limiting the sale of menthol cigarettes and e-cigarettes to adult-only tobacco or smoke shops where customers must be at least 21 years old to enter.

“Only a product marketed to kids needs flavors such as mango-, fruit-, or creme-flavored nicotine,” O’Malley said.

In a statement to Boston.com Thursday, a JUUL Labs spokesperson said the prominent e-cigarette manufacturer has taken “aggressive action to combat underage use of our products, while preserving the opportunity for adult smokers to switch from combustible cigarettes.”

“Flavors are a complex issue,” the statement says. “We believe flavors play a critical role in switching adult smokers from cigarettes because flavors can help smokers disassociate from the taste of tobacco and the odor of cigarettes; we see the results in our own behavioral research.

“While we do not and will not sell flavors which are clearly targeted to youth, we also understand that flavors that drive adults from cigarettes have the potential to appeal to youth,” the statement continued.

JUUL said the company has stopped selling its “non-tobacco/non-menthol-based flavored pods” in stores, offering them instead on its website, where the company has an age-verification process and restrictions on bulk purchases.

Last year, JUUL and other online retailers came under fire from state Attorney General Maura Healey, who announced her office was probing how products may have been marketed and sold to underage users. JUUL denied wrongdoing.

The City Council‘s pending hearing request was assigned to the Committee on Healthy Women, Families, and Communities, which O’Malley helms.

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“It is vital that we do this to preserve the health of the next generation of the City of Boston,” O’Malley said.